In preparation for Monday night’s Texans at Patriots showdown, I took a few minutes to talk with Claire Mullins of “State of The Texans”. Mullins is actually an official fan reporter of the Texans, and here is the interview with questions from Claire and other Houston fans on Twitter, along with my responses below.

To check out the interview and the rest of the site, click here.

1. With the depleted offensive line, what will be key to negating the Texans’ pass rush?

The Patriots offensive line is certainly one of the best groups in the NFL. Led by positional coach Dante Scarnecchia, the unit is fifth in the league in sacks allowed. Even though the group has faced injuries in recent weeks, time after time it seems no matter whom the team plugs in, QB Tom Brady has a clean pocket. New England’s ability to neutralize Houston’s pass rush and defensive player of the year candidate DE J.J. Watt, could ultimately be the key to the game.

I expect the Patriots to stay balanced offensively, running and use more quick passes to avoid any blitz. Keeping an extra tight end to chip or a running back to pass protect would probably benefit the team facing an aggressive Wade Phillips defense.

2. Why do you believe that the running game for the Patriots has been so effective opposed to previous seasons?

The Patriots running attack has really just come down to personnel. RB Stevan Ridley has emerged as the lead back and having a tremendous season eclipsing the 1,000 yard mark with four games left to play. Second-year running back Shane Vereen has shown the ability to score whenever he is given the opportunity. Rookie RB Brandon Bolden, expected to return this week after a four-game suspension, has flashed and even led the team in carries in game earlier this season. Even though he is not involved as much anymore, RB Danny Woodhead has come up with some of the biggest plays of the year. Overall, this is the most talented committee of backs the Pats have had in quite some time.

3. With TE Rob Gronkowski and WR Julian Edelman out do you think HC Bill Belichick leans more on Ridley and WR Wes Welker this game?

No question. Ridley, Welker and TE Aaron Hernandez will be the three main weapons for the Patriots Monday night. WR Brandon Lloyd has been quiet in his first year with the team, but has made big plays at times. In any case, look for the aforementioned three weapons to be the most targeted throughout the game.

4. With a defense ranked in the bottom quarter of the NFL, what do you envision the Patriots pass rush doing to get past a stout offensive line and to Texans QB Matt Schaub?

The ability to protect and get after the opposing quarterback will be the biggest key to the game in my opinion. The Patriots have been extremely successful when blitzing this season, but Belichick seems hesitant at times to put his often-burned in position to be victimized yet again. Rookie defensive end Chandler Jones has been impressive this season and his expected return Monday night should be a big boost for the unit. If the Pats can generate pressure on Schaub with four players, the Texans will be in trouble. On the flip side, if the Patriots roll the dice and cannot get to the QB in time, Houston could move down the field in a hurry.

5. How do you see the Patriots 9th ranked rushing defense stopping the Texans running attack?

With all due respect to Texans RB Arian Foster, I would actually be surprised if he ran well against New England. The Patriots run defense has been stout this season and Belichick has proven over the years he will take away what teams do best. I look for the Pats to try and make the Texans one-dimensional, while also forcing Schaub to step up in a congested pocket. The last thing the Patriots can afford is letting Houston set up a play action pass, which the Texans are so great at executing.  Linebackers Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower are all very strong against the run and the Pats’ front seven has done a solid job “setting the edge” throughout the season. I expect limiting Foster will be priority one coming into the game.

6. Who are some lesser-known players on both offense and defense that we should keep an eye on for Thursday?

Offensively, you’ve heard of the bigger names. Gronkowski, Hernandez, Welker, Lloyd and Ridley. Julian Edelman would be a name to throw out as a playmaker, but he was placed on Injured-reserve this week after breaking his foot in Miami last Sunday. However, tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer are two of the league’s best. Vollmer will most likely be facing off with JJ. Watt throughout the game and will be an exciting match-up. Unfortunately, a concern for the Patriots would be Vollmer’s back injury that has bothered him throughout his career and seems to be back again — no pun intended. His health, or lack there of, could turn out to be a huge blow to New England if he is limited or unable to go Monday night.

Defensively, rookie Chandler Jones should be making his return after dealing with a brief ankle injury. His 6.5 sacks and 3 forced fumbles has put his name in consideration for defensive rookie of the year, but he has also been outstanding versus the run. Also, middle linebacker Brandon Spikes is having his best season as a Patriots and brings a lot of power as well as intensity to the field. Texans players going over the middle will need to keep their heads on a swivel with no. 55 ready to make yet another impact play.

7. Who do you see on Texans WR Andre Johnson? Patriots CB Aqib Talib?

Andre Johnson is a tough match-up for the Patriots defense, or any defense in the league. The unit struggles against the pass, but has shown in recent weeks to be improving. Albeit facing quarterbacks such as Andrew Luck, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Mark Sanchez and Ryan Tannehill.

I believe Talib will go against Johnson, but would expect him to be double covered or have safety help rolled to his side. The team will have to go in to the contest with a sound gameplan. After all, this is a Patriots defense that has given up a league-high 59 pass plays of 20 yards or more this season.

8. What are some matchups the Patriots can exploit versus the Texans?

I would say the middle of the Texans defense with a banged up linebacking core. Three step drops, quick passes and that should also help Brady stand tall in the pocket. Hernandez and Welker are tough for any defense to go against, so the middle of the field will be key.

9. And finally, with the top ranked offense in the NFL going up against one of the more exciting defenses, how do you see Monday playing out?

This is a game both teams have circled on their calendars for months now. This more than likely will not be the only time these teams face each other this year. So many times in the NFL, it’s timing that can hurt you just as much as the opposing team. The Texans are going on the road for a third straight week to face a very good Patriots squad. I believe the game will be close, but I believe the Patriots will pull out the victory by about a touchdown margin. Prediction: Patriots 31, Texans 23

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