FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- For all the focus on the New England Patriots' uncertainty at quarterback, an equally important storyline is probably being overlooked leading into Thursday night's game: the running game, and its prior success against the Houston Texans.
When the Patriots and Texans met last Dec. 13, LeGarrette Blount was on his way to a big day before injuring his hip in the second quarter. He had 10 carries for 53 yards, and there were wide creases in which to run.
The Patriots blocked well in that game, using 300-pound tight end Michael Williams on 37 snaps, which was his fourth-highest total of the season. They attacked game-wrecking defensive lineman J.J. Watt with angle blocks, using his aggressiveness against him at times with draws and misdirection runs, while getting the ball out of quarterback Tom Brady's hands quickly in the passing game to limit Watt's impact as a pass rusher.
If the Patriots can duplicate that success Thursday night, it will likely be the key to them winning the game regardless of who is playing quarterback.
The running game has been one of the pleasant surprises for the team early this year, with Bill Belichick acknowledging that the blocking has improved from 2015. Belichick's weekly breakdown of key plays on Patriots.com also highlighted how Blount is finishing his runs with force.
This, not surprisingly, has caught the attention of Texans coach Bill O'Brien.
"People have asked me over the last couple of days about the quarterback position, but I think that one of the keys is how they’ve been able to run the football," he said. "Very physical upfront."
O'Brien's words were delivered two days after the Texans surrendered 119 rushing yards on 19 carries (6.3 avg.) in a 19-12 win over the Kansas City Chiefs. Almost half of that total came on two runs (28 yards, 25 yards), highlighting how the possibility of the big chunk running play against the Texans is there for the Patriots.
So for all the talk about the quarterbacks, which is obviously a major storyline, the Patriots' past success running the ball against the Texans can't be overlooked, nor can their early-season results: 161 rushing yards on 38 carries against the Dolphins, and 106 rushing yards on 31 carries in the season-opening win over the Cardinals.
No one is confusing the Patriots as a ground-and-pound offense, but their ability to generate momentum in that area Thursday is critical, which was a point O'Brien was making for those interested in some of the most important non-quarterback storylines Thursday.