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    November 19, 2003
Zip's Houston Texans Preview
By:  Zip/PatriotZip.com
PatsFans.com Fan Columnist

Texans Dominate the AFC-East and Give Pats Inspiration to Avoid Pitfalls

Game Notes

   Bill Belichick had his Patriot's coached before they left the locker room after the Dallas victory.  Damien Woody, Adam Vinatieri and Tedy Bruschi all commented that Houston had just beaten the Bills in Buffalo which was more than the Patriots could claim.  No doubt the opening Texan victory over Miami was also on the docket of inspiration.  The Patriots at 8-2 are a better team than the 4-6 Texans but the better team doesn't always win.  Kansas City also provided a timely reminder for New England's Texan preparation.  While these teams have never met before there is series history in Houston having played 14 times there and being a dismal 5-9 in those games.  This record as about as relevant as the past series history for any team.  Antowain Smith played college ball in Houston and will be eager to make a good showing while helping the Patriots' attempt to achieve their best record in history (9-2).  Right Tackle for the Texans is manned by Greg Robinson-Randall, the nose tackle is Steve Martin and the free safety position holds the last former Patriot in Matt Stevens.

   The Patriots are looking for their seventh straight win and a major step towards wrapping up their division while staying in position for home field advantage come tournament time.  The Titans are only two games removed from playoff contention but unlikely to realize those aspirations this season.  They are, however, eager to notch their first back-to-back victory performance of the franchise's young history.  Coach Dom Capers worked marvels with his first expansion team but also learned and is hoping to apply this learning to his second effort with a steadily improving Texan team.

Injury Report:

   The Patriot Wide Receiver corps have taken more injuries and while Troy Brown is likely to make a big return in Houston, the Patriots have a battered crew.  Last week marked the return of the Teds (Washington and Johnson) with considerable success.  Now they have their lightest injury report of the season with most of the list expected to play.  Houston meanwhile has sustained several more critical injuries including the ensured loss of David Carr and Antwan Peek for this game.

New England Patriots

Houston Texans

QUESTIONABLE: 
WR Troy Brown (leg)
WR David Givens (leg)
LB Ted Johnson (foot)
FB Fred McCrary (leg)
NT Ted Washington (leg)

PROBABLE: 
QB Tom Brady (arm)

Out:
QB David Carr
LB Antwan Peek

Doubtful:
DE Gary Walker (toe)

Questionable: 
G Milford Brown (knee)

Probable:
CB Aaron Glenn (groin)
WR JJ Moses (hamstring)
DE Corey Sears (ankle)

Opponent Review

   The Texans have a pair of play-makers on offense which they attempt to put in position to exploit their opposition for big gains and key touchdowns.  Domanick Davis is a short, powerful and explosive running-back.  In his first year he has averaged nearly five yards per carry and has burst out for more than 20 yards four times on the season.  That's three more times than all other backs has managed against New England.  He's also a weapon in the passing game having caught more passes than any of the New England pass-catchers.  In fact he's caught three more passes than Deion Branch or Kevin Faulk who co-lead the Patriots with 31 receptions.  He is a dangerous threat who will need to occupy considerable defensive attention.  Andre Johnson is the rookie receiver carrying the bulk of the work in Houston.  His 46 receptions leads the team as does the three balls for more than 40 yards.  He's got great size at 6'2" and 221 pounds but he has the size in conjunction with blazing speed.  These two weapons represent the bulk of Houston's offensive threat which despite their considerable talents has been below average.  They are somewhat balanced with the 15th rushing and passing offense in the league but combined this represents the 19th overall defense in yards per game.  In points per game they are near the bottom at 28th and this may be the most telling statistic of all for the young team.  Against teams with a powerful offense they have been grossly defeated while against the more defensive teams they have managed to extract their four wins and generally keep the contests close.

   The Titans Defense is led by talented middle linebacker Jamie Sharper.  His 94 tackles leads the team by a dominant amount which is appropriate for his dominant play.  Tied for fourth in the league for total tackles, his play is on par with Ray Lewis and Zach Thomas.  Dom Capers employs a 3-4 defensive scheme which features linebackers making plays and Sharper's supporting cast at linebacker is decent if not exceptional.  Jay Foreman is not far behind him and benefits from playing beside Sharper.  Jamie Sharper is the obvious strength of Houston's defense and is backed by quality cornerbacks with depth to handle multiple receiver sets for passing situations.  Having taken both of the New York Jets star corners, Glenn and Coleman, the Titans have watched their play decline slightly but still maintain quality while youthful depth is developing.

Patriot Review

   A new addition to the Preview it was well recommended I include a brief review of the Patriots in similar fashion to my Opponent Review.  It doesn't take much to acknowledge the Patriots thrive on their defense currently.  This is likely to only improve as their injury woes steadily lesson.  Richard Seymour anchors the defensive line and may be one of the brightest young stars at his position in the NFL.  Working in conjunction with Ted Washington he supplies a force in the middle of the defensive line which pressures a Quarterback and can pursue sideline to sideline.  Given this anchor New England uses a core of linebackers with enough talent to cross into Defensive Lineman when the situation requires.  Players such as Mike Vrabel, Willie McGinest and even Roman Phifer can mask their multiple roles as they confuse their opposition and provide pressure from an array of positions while dropping into coverage from surprising formations.  Meanwhile the difference from last year's disappointment is evident most notably in the renovated secondary.  Rodney Harrison, Eugene Wilson and Tyrone Poole have joined Ty Law in greatly strengthening the secondary.  Asante Samuels is available to add speed nickel coverage when needed and the entire group has been a dominating force.  They do not get beat deep and they punish short routes.  Meanwhile the central point of the defense is held by Tedy Bruschi who has worked to call the defensive formations and lead by example with an infectious full tilt performance.  They get quality performances on every level from Hamilton to rookie Dan Klecko.

   Offensively the Patriots have yet to hit stride as they continue to make enough mistakes to hold themselves back.  Usually in the form of penalties or dropped passes the group is most notably impacted by an inability to get their ground game moving in the last four games.  They have a Bruising style back in Antowain Smith as well as an elusive speedster in Kevin Faulk.  The main challenge comes from their offensive line not generating enough push.  A bit more capable on their left side, the right side of the line is clearly more suited to pass protection.  This very pass protection has been much better than anticipated.  The surprising performance of rookie Center Dan Koppen has freed Damien Woody to fill a need at Left Guard.  Meanwhile Tom Ashworth, a converted Tight End, has been holding down surprisingly well at right tackle.  The true strength of the pass protection has been excellent pocket awareness by Tom Brady.  After a slower start to the season he has become steadily more capable of moving around in the pocket to get the time needed for his throws.  A battered wide receiving group has still managed to produce the necessary yards, catches and points to keep pace with their opposition and provide the defense enough points to reach their 8-2 record.

   Throwing out the abomination which was their opener against Buffalo, New England has been exceedingly competitive with the sole loss beyond Buffalo coming in Washington when the offense had a last minute chance but for once failed to get the go-ahead or even tying score.  Three times the offense has supplied more than 30 points to ensure victory while each other game was carried by the strong defense.  Special teams may have slipped a bit with Ken Walter having an abysmal season but Adam seems to have found his poise again and once more may be expected to automatically supply his field goals.

Our Match-up Weakness

   Houston has a balanced threat of three phases.  They have a very talented running back who can break a big gain in fashions similar to Clinton Portis.  Portis was the only 100 yard running-back against New England this year and Davis may be a back to threaten similar especially since he represents the second phase in his receiving ability out of the back-field.  The third phase is the threat of talented receiver Andre Johnson.  In New England's linebacker dominated schemes this supplies a triple threat of the run, pass to the back and slants to the receiver which may keep them sufficiently busy to give Houston an edge.

   Ken Walter has lost all height to his kicks and much of the distance.  Houston has dangerous return options and New England must step up their efforts on special teams to avoid this advantage becoming easy points for the Houston Texans.  Coverage can make up for some of it but it will be a steady challenge in field position and flat out special teams scores.

   Many opponents are put at odds by the 3-4 scheme commonly employed by New England.  The Texans practice against it on a regular basis and as such will not have to make many adjustments against this facet of New England's typical advantage.

Our Match-up Strength

   The timely return of Ted Washington and Ted Johnson have shored up the run defense.  When determined to stop the run they are a very capable team for doing such.  Seymour's side to side speed is augmented by the behemoth form of Washington in the middle.  This speed and athleticism will put pressure in the middle which forces Davis outside into the waiting arms of linebackers who are assigned to seal his outside lanes.

   Assigning one of their talented linebackers to specifically target Davis allows the secondary to concentrate on the dominant threat of Johnson.  When Johnson and the running game is neutralized the pressure falls on barely back-up quality Tony Banks.  While he did defeat the Patriots in his final season as the St. Louis starter, Banks has fallen steadily into decline.  Though his numbers are a bit higher than David Carr's he is forced into service by Carr's injury and will be at a mismatch against the confusing defensive schemes which are his most notable challenge.

   The Patriots have been generally determined to attempt to run outside the defensive Tackle positions.  Against most teams they've faced this has been a disadvantage but it is precisely the weakness of the Texan run defense.  Faulk would be particularly effective in this scheme but even Antowain's power off the edge of the Tackle is likely to be an effective tool.  When their run game gets going their play-action is even more dangerous.

Strategy

   Offensively the Texans must attack with their ground game.  They want to run away from Seymour and outside of Washington or they must pull a guard to put an extra body on Seymour.  New England's run defense may be shored but Davis must test his speed against Vrable, Phifer or McGinest's ability to get to the edge.  If his speed is an edge or close enough to keep the threat real then New Englnad's corners will be worn down trying to support a run-game which steadily controls the ball and clock.  Staying out of clear passing situations is the only way to ensure Tony Banks isn't stunned with blitzers forcing him to make errors.  Field Position games favor the Titans and they have the style running back to help them achieve it if they can keep him away from Seymour and Washington.

   Defensively they want to stack against the run in a run-blitz approach all the while jamming the wide receivers.  The short passing game hasn't been consistent enough to score and New England has relied on the big play to stay in games which had their line stacked.  The receivers whom are getting these deep plays do not have the physical tools to overcome a jam if there is pressure enough to force a quick throw.  The steady underneath throws will punish an ailing crew of receivers who seem to develop the drops after a few hits.

   New England meanwhile wants to shut down the two primary threats.  Johnson is a challenge but only if Banks can get him the ball without fearing the turnovers which New England's cut-purse secondary has started to perfect.  The Patriots therefore will trust their rebuilt secondary while swarming Dominick Davis.  This swarm will convert to Bank's Nightmare if the Texans aren't able to play-action the Patriots into a tentative blitz approach.  Let Davis attempt to run and catch but limit his gains and wear him down.  New England's defense is predicated on the principle teams will not convert enough third downs if the bigger gains are thwarted.

   Offensively New England would love to run at the Texan defense.  To do such they will first loosen the middle linebackers by sending their double tight end formations to attack the middle.  Graham and Fauria must pressure Sharper off the line to help get the running game underway.  As with any team boasting a dominant middle tackler, the strongest assault is to run at him with a pulling guard and let the back run off this guard.  Damien Woody is one of the better pulling guards and will have this opportunity to spring his back for steady gains.  The more steady gains exploited will lead to more opportunities for the Play Action pass to attack downfield.

Prediction

   The Houston Texans do not provide the pressure needed to trouble Tom Brady.  With his generally decent protection and well proven pocket awareness, he will be finding more time than usual to select his receivers.  Houston's defense is too one-dimensional and as such Charlie Weis will exploit that dimension for more points than his offense has managed in two of the last three games.  Meanwhile the Patriot defense is peaking already and are faced with threats which fall mostly within their spectrum.  The challenge is holding down the corner against Davis' speed.  Davis will fall short of Portis' mark against New England but still it is not enough to cover for the other shortcomings.  New England is too much team for the Texans and they are sufficiently aware of the trap threat to be fully prepared.  The Defense can't pitch back-to-back shut-outs but it's close while the offense controls the points and gives the biggest win of the year despite a late Texan score.

New England Patriots -  34  -  Houston Texans - 10

 Zip/PatriotZip.com
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