The New England Patriots offensive line is hoping to keep the salutes and finger wags to a minimum on Sunday evening.
Those are the ways that Houston Texans’ defensive end J.J. Watt celebrates sacks and tipped passes, respectively, and the guys that protect quarterback Tom Brady from things like that aren’t having any of it, and neither is Head Coach Bill Belichick.
“He’s a great player; he’s made more big plays than probably anybody has defensively this year in the league,” Belichick said about the odds-on defensive player of the year “Watt’s a big focal point, no question, on that defense.”
Watt didn’t get to do his celebratory gestures when these teams met last, but that doesn’t mean that Brady didn’t make his acquaintance several times, luckily empty-handed…but just because you get rid of the ball before Watt makes contact doesn’t mean it hurts any less.
Brady took a beating in the blowout of the Texans, only having the quickest release in the game prevented more than just the one sack…and the Texans were without a couple of key players along that line, which concerns the Patriots’ Head coach, saying “you can’t ignore the other guys either. They’re all part of the problem.”
In fact, Brady was getting hit so often after releasing the ball that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels started calling stretch play-action throws to gain Brady a pocket outside of the tackles that caused the defense just enough hesitation for him to carve up the secondary without being brutalized by Watt & Co.
So it goes without saying that New England has a difficult task ahead of them if they have designs of advancing to the AFC Championship Game.
Many look at New England’s 42-14 Victory in week 14 as just a matter of the Patriots opening up a can on Houston – but the reality is that it was one of those nights that many things rolled the way of the Minutemen, things so random that they can never be counted on as a matter of course.
Twice in the red zone the Patriots fumbled the ball – and twice the ball rolled right to where a teammate was engaged. A couple of bad Pass Interference calls helped their cause as well. The Texans were in a hole so quickly that they abandoned their running game, which forced Schaub to be a drop back, pocket passer and he ended up taking a worse beating than Brady.
This is not to say that New England wouldn’t have won that game regardless, it just means that a proper call here and a misguided bounce of the ball there and the game would have been a slug fest.
And we know this about New England because the difference between the Patriots and Texans – and the reason that the Patriots win this game – is that the Patriots have the intestinal fortitude and mentality of a mean counter puncher to take an opponent’s best shot and come back swinging.
This became clearly evident the following week, when the Patriots got down big to San Francisco – when the breaks were not rolling their way, when the bad penalties were not going the their way, New England had the fight and fortitude to make a run at the 49ers.
They made their own breaks in the second half and damned near pulled that game out. If the Texans get down big, well, we all saw what happened.
But we’ve also seen what happens when the Texans get a lead on someone, and that’s a scenario best avoided…so to twist fate in their favor, the Patriots are going to go aggressive and take the game to the Texans…
“You don’t win a war by digging a foxhole and sitting in it,” Belichick said earlier this week. “You’ve got to go out there and attack, you’ve got to make the plays that you need to make to win. It’s a one-game season.”
When Belichick leveled that quote about not digging foxholes, not only did he give us another classic one-liner that will live in Patriot lore, but also he gave us an idea of how he’s going to approach this game on both sides of the ball – and it’s not by getting cute, it’s not by running trick plays and it’s not by changing their philosophy from what worked the last time…
…to the contrary, it’s about building upon what worked on December 10th, it’s about lining up and playing smash mouth, it’s about making the Texans defend the entire field.
Which means it’s about maintaining the offensive balance that they enjoyed in the first meeting.
In the blowout, the Patriots had almost numerically perfect balance on offense, the passing game outpacing the running game by a 37-33 margin, and when you have that kind of symmetry just about any play you call is going to have a positive result, particularly when Brady uses the tempo of the no-huddle offense and the power running game to soften the pass rush.
It’s running right at the strength of the defense, using Gronkowski or Hoomanawanui in a stacked receiver formation to wham block the uncovered linebacker and run the ball right into Watt’s teeth until they stop it…and there is precedent to the effectiveness of this tactic.
Running off-guard produced 90 of New England’s 130 rushing yards, for an excellent six yards per carry. Being so successful on the inside running game was what made the stretch play action – and the play action in general – so effective. To a man, on nearly every play action fake, the bait was taken by the Texans leaving their secondary at the mercy of New England’s lethal receivers.
Of course, it’s generally agreed that the Patriots did a good job on the Texans’ defensive line five weeks ago – which is scary because of the beating that Brady took. So having tight end Rob Gronkowski back after missing the last meeting adds a layer of protection that the team didn’t have in that game.
Mike Hoomanawanui did a commendable job of run blocking in Gronk’s absence but let’s face it: he’s not Gronkowski. Gronk is so large and powerful in space and eats up so much room that it’s tough for the defenders to find the ball carrier around him…
…so he joins forces with Sebastian Vollmer and Dan Connolly and the running back can slide off right guard, or we could see we could see Hoomanawanui leading the back through the hole between Logan Mankins and Nate Solder from the fullback position.
But Gronkowski is the proverbial x-factor in this contest…he is a road grader in the running game and Brady’s very large safety valve, as he commonly chips the defensive end – in this case Watt – then releases into a pattern giving Brady a clear target underneath.
And that little chip block could mean the difference between Brady running for his life and Brady tossing those tight spirals to – well – take your pick of recievers…