Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
10 Dec 2012
by Andy Benoit
The Patriots have been more inclined to play man coverage since acquiring Aqib Talib. They’ve done a decent job with it, in part because Bill Belichick’s aversion to blitzing leaves two safeties back deep. That often allows the corners to play in trail technique, which is where Talib and nickel slot man Kyle Arrington are most comfortable.
Man-to-man can be tough to execute against Houston due to the high volume of bunch receiver alignments and intertwined crossing patterns. It does, however, keep defenders’ eyes out of the backfield, which helps ensure that they won’t be over-reactive to Matt Schaub’s play-action fakes and misdirection rollouts. The lanky Talib, who so far has looked good but also unpolished at times, has propagated New England’s new rash of coverages, but he’s not the key to the pass defense Monday night. The linebackers are.
If the Patriots put a safety to Andre Johnson’s side, they’ll often leave either Jerod Mayo or Brandon Spikes one-on-one against Owen Daniels or James Casey. In fact, because so much of Houston’s passing game occurs out of base personnel, it’s possible rookie linebacker Dont’a Hightower could find himself isolated against one of the tight ends. (Or against Arian Foster, who is also very dangerous as a receiver.) Hightower moves extremely well for his size, but in pass defense, this is a glaring mismatch favoring the Texans. Normally, Belichick might be inclined to use a big nickel package against this sort of offense in order to get a reserve safety (in this case, the demoted Patrick Chung) on a tight end. However, against Houston, that would leave his defense too vulnerable to the run. The ground game is the engine of Gary Kubiak’s offense.
Expect New England to rely heavily on their linebackers in pass defense. However, that likely means more zone coverage, as Mayo is the only linebacker with any hope of surviving in man-to-man (and he is much more comfortable in zone). New England’s linebacking trio might be the most physical in the league, so it’s important they exert that physicality to disrupt the timing of Houston’s underneath crossing patterns.
You can’t beat the Texans without containing their ground game. Spikes is the most vicious interior gap-shooting linebacker in the NFL. It’ll be interesting to see how his brawny approach fares against finesse zone-blocking. On a similar note, the Texans should be very concerned about Vince Wilfork: he’s been the most destructive run defender in football over the past month. The Patriots love to align him between the guard and tackle on what they anticipate being the play side. It’d be wise for the Texans to use balanced dual-tight end formations so that at the line of scrimmage they can easily audible to runs that go away from Wilfork.
One final note: the Texans love to get their offense rolling out of the gate with screen passes -– especially to tight ends off play-action. Don’t be surprised if they open with this and go to it three or four times in the first quarter.
The Patriots have relied a little more on three-receiver sets during Rob Gronkowski’s absence. That could change now that Julian Edelman is on IR. Donte’ Stallworth was signed off the street as a replacement, but temporary No. 2 tight end Daniel Fells will likely get Edelman’s reps. Fells has actually been getting a lot of snaps as of late anyway, as even with Gronkowski out, the Patriots have made a concerted effort not to abandon their versatile two-tight end packages.
Obviously Fells doesn’t begin to pose the kind of threat that Gronkowski does, but minimizing the drop-off in talent is the way the Patriots control the tempo with their no-huddle. The fast pace of play mixed with recurrent 3x2 empty sets creates a lot of indefensible interior throwing lanes. With defenses often resorting to static looks just to get lined up, Tom Brady has zero trouble locating the dink and dunk opportunities down after down. He’s absolutely brilliant in the pre-snap phase.
Normally, the Texans defense likes to dictate the terms of engagement. They’ve been a little more vanilla with Johnathan Joseph out of the lineup, but Joseph is probable for this game. Great as he is, the Texans don’t desperately need their star corner in this game. He and Kareem Jackson (who has been tremendous this season, particularly in man coverage) both play outside –- where the Patriots rarely throw. The deciding matchup is in the slot, where young cornerback Brandon Harris will have his hands full against Wes Welker. Safety Glover Quin will likely match up on Aaron Hernandez. Quin is fairly fluid but will still need help.
The Texans will use their dime-sub package at times against the no-huddle. In those instances, expect the Patriots to turn to their fine-tuned power run-blocking tactics and ride Stevan Ridley. Assuming J.J. Watt doesn’t destroy the struggling Sebastian Vollmer on more than 10 snaps, Ridley should be able to get his yards.
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