These Patriots are not an easy bunch to figure out. One week they’ll try to ram the ball down an opponent’s throat with the run, the next they’ll spread it out and attack through the air, and they’ll follow that with an ultra hurry-up approach to rattle a defense and open up holes. What’ll it be Monday against the AFC-leading Texans? Our three Patriots reporters try to get into the mind of Bill Belichick and guess the game plan.
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Mike Reiss: Calling for an all-out blitz -- on offense
What is the best approach against a defense that blitzes more than any team in the NFL? Blitz them on offense with an up-tempo approach.
That’s where this week’s offensive plan could start, with the idea of putting the foot on the accelerator and dictating terms to the Texans so that it’s difficult for them to get set and dial up their schemes. The Patriots ran 94 snaps (including penalties) against the Broncos on Oct. 7. They should shoot for 100 in this game.
The Texans have been tough to run against, with opponents averaging just 87.6 yards per game. Pushing the pace could help create opportunities in this area, as the Patriots’ hurry-up running game has been a spark for them this season.
Defensively, there is no one clear answer, so the thought here is to start with the running game. Because the Texans have such an effective play-action game, limiting them on the ground would have a positive trickle-down effect of limiting that aspect of their passing game. A safety should consistently be rolled over the top of receiver Andre Johnson as well.
Mike Rodak: Brady should test Texans deep
The biggest weakness for the Texans defense is the ability to defend deeper passes. Overall, the Texans defense ranks 19th in the NFL in pass defense, allowing 235 yards per game. It has allowed 44 completions of 20 yards of more, seventh-worst in the NFL. (The Patriots are a distant 32nd, allowing 59 such plays).
Digging deeper, the Texans have been targeted 55 times this season on "deep" passes (as indicated on NFL play-by-play), higher than the league average of 50 targets. The impact of top cornerback Johnathan Joseph is clear: opposing quarterbacks complete only 24 percent of their passes to Joseph's typical side (the "deep left"), while they complete 50 percent of their passes to the "deep middle" and "deep right," and average 17 yards per play when doing so, second-worst in the NFL.
Even if Joseph returns on Monday night from his two-game absence due to a hamstring injury, the Patriots should test left cornerback Kareem Jackson early and often. In the third quarter of the Texans' win last week over the Titans, wide receiver Kenny Britt put a move on Jackson and found open space down the right sideline for a 34-yard touchdown catch. In the fourth quarter, receiver Nate Washington beat Jackson for a 49-yard gain.
There are two factors that could hold the Patriots back from connecting on big plays like those. First, they lack a vertical, outside receiver who can win battles in the deep part of the field. If there's a time for Brandon Lloyd to step up in that category, this is the game. Second, the Texans have 36 sacks, second-most in the NFL. If the offensive line can't give Brady time, then the Texans don't have to worry as much about protecting the deep part of the field.
Field Yates: Through the air is the way to go
It may not seem like it on paper, but the Texans have some similarities to the Dolphins along the defensive line, where both teams boast powerful, quick, disruptive players who can stall a running game.
The Dolphins did well to contain the Patriots for most of Week 13, which led the Patriots to expose their secondary in the middle of the field, where both Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez proved to be dangerous threats.
If either Logan Mankins or Dan Connolly is unable to play this Monday, that will leave the Patriots thin on the line and could decrease their ability to establish a power running game against Houston’s front. That will lead Brady to once again work the middle of the field against a secondary that is hurting.
Though Houston has come from behind in two of their last three games (all wins), this is an offense that is made to establish an early lead and control the clock after doing so. That puts points at a premium in the first quarter, and if the Patriots can capitalize early, they’ll be able to push Houston out of its comfort zone.
The Texans are at their best when they can overwhelm a defense on the ground with Arian Foster chewing up first downs and killing the clock. Establishing an early lead is the way to counter that attack, and the Patriots must be efficient and effective on their opening drives to dictate the tempo of the game -- not the other way around.