Although the Houston Texans have monumental odds stacked against them, they do have the key ingredients to serve the New England Patriots a loss at Gillette Stadium on Saturday night. Houston isn’t going to beat the Pats in a shootout, so their best chance at upsetting New England is to win in a low-scoring defensive slugfest. However, doing this has proven to be a tall task for any team for over a decade.
- Who: Houston Texans (9-7) at New England Patriots (14-2)
- When: Saturday, Jan. 14, 8:15 p.m. EST (CBS)
- Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass.
- Latest line: The Patriots are 15-point favorites, according to SportsLine
If the Texans need an example of how to put Tom Brady his place, they need to refer to last year’s AFC title game. The Denver Broncos’ front seven, which included Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Malik Jackson, and Derek Wolfe, overwhelmed the Pats’ offensive line all day, and got a ridiculous amount of pressure on Brady as a result. In this game, Denver sacked Brady four times and pressured him on 30 of his 61 drop backs, according to Pro Football Focus. Brady needed to attempt 56 passes to pick up 310 yards, meaning he only collected 5.5 yards a throw. Throughout Brady’s career, and this season as well, pressure has proven to be his kryptonite.
Brady was only pressured on 30.9 percent of his drop backs, according to PFF, which could explain why he had such a marvelous 2016 season. However, when teams did pressure Brady, his performance noticeably declined. As the Broncos showed last year, the Texans must be able to pressure Brady without sending any extra rushers. If Houston sends extra rushers, Brady will tear the Texans apart, like he has done to every other team who tried this tactic. In other words, this means Houston still needs a reasonable body count in coverage for the blitz to work to their advantage:
What Brady is best at is identifying which of his receivers will come open prior to the snap, then getting that player the ball as soon as he possibly can. As a result, blitzes don’t have enough time to properly work, and Brady’s receivers that catch the ball in stride have a lot of space to make a big play for the offense. Players such as Julien Edelman, Danny Amendola, James White, and Dion Lewis are all capable of generating a bunch of yards after the catch, but they need Brady to get the ball to them accurately and on time first. If Houston can mess this pattern up for New England, the splash players won’t be able to make splash plays and this game will be much closer than many people will anticipate.
Can Houston mimic Denver’s performance from last season’s AFC title game?
Houston, who owns the NFL’s top-ranked defense, has the key components to copy the 2015 Broncos’ game plan.
Denver pressured Brady last year by spreading their defensive line out, which put the offensive linemen on their own island and gave Miller, Ware, Jackson, and Wolfe a lot of room to operate. Then Denver sent their corners, Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, Jr., and Bradley Roby to play closer to the line of scrimmage to close off those quick, short, crossing patterns the Patriots thrive off of in games. The Texans have an impressive trio of cornerbacks (Jonathan Joseph, Kareem Jackson, and A.J. Bouye) and a wicked pass rush, which ranks in the top five of PFF’s pressure rate. Joseph, Jackson, and Bouye have all done a phenomenal job pressing up on their marks, which has helped Houston rank No, 3 in Football Outsiders’ DVOA against short passes. Although the Patriots’ short passing game is well above average, don’t expect the Texans’ secondary to get completely overwhelmed by it.
If nothing else, Houston can at least make life more difficult for New England.
Assuming Houston can penetrate New England’s offensive line without sending the blitz, New England will be in trouble. The Texans have two high-quality pass rushers in Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus, who have potential to give Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon all kinds of problems on Saturday. Clowney has lived up to his draft hype, and was a crucial factor in Houston’s win over Oakland in the Wild Card round. He was all over the field last Saturday and recorded his first interception on his career, which helped set the Texans up to score in the red zone. New England has the option to keep Martellus Bennett as an extra blocker, but this is exactly what the Texans hope will happen, as the Patriots would lose one of their best receivers in the process.
Romeo Crennel is a genius at creating pressure by sending his rushers from a variety of different places on the field. If he chooses to do so, he can call a zone blitz to confuse the Pats’ offensive line. However, New England has proven to be capable of handling that style of rush, which is part of the reason they have appearing in the AFC title game in five-straight seasons. Houston will have their work cut out for them on Saturday, as they face the AFC’s best team. They are 15-point underdogs for a reason, and their incompetence on offense doesn’t help their cause. As good as the Texans’ defense is, they are set to face off against one of the NFL’s most elite offenses. Houston will need to execute the perfect game plan on defense if they want a punchers chance at pulling off one of the biggest upsets in playoff history. Are the Texans up to the task? We’ll find out on Saturday night.