When the Patriots and Texans meet again Sunday at Gillette Stadium, the outcome could certainly be different than the 42-14 drubbing New England put on Houston Dec. 10.
And we’re not just talking about margin of victory.
The Texans have more than a puncher’s chance against the heavily favored Patriots (Houston is 12-4 for a reason) but they are only going to spring a huge upset if two people have the game of their lives: quarterback Matt Schaub and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
It’s just that neither has shown any glimpse that they will.
The Texans offense had multiple chances to make plays against the Patriots, but failed almost every time to capitalize. There were three drops, and the right side of the line was overwhelmed, but most of the ineffectiveness fell on Schaub in the pass game. Time and time again, he missed terrific opportunities to burn the Patriots.
On the interception to Devin McCourty in the red zone, Schaub stared receiver Kevin Walter down the entire way and was easily read by McCourty. Schaub missed running back Arian Foster, who was uncovered underneath and could have walked in for a touchdown.
On third down with 10:01 left in the second quarter, Schaub started to feel the effects of the incessant Patriots rush when, despite very good protection, he checked down to receiver Lestar Jean in 1.88 seconds. Vince Wilfork deflected the pass to end the drive. Had Schaub held the ball a beat longer, tight end Owen Daniels was one-on-one with Steve Gregory in the middle of the field.
With 8:32 left in the half, Schaub made a nice read to hit Andre Johnson for 25 yards. But Schaub missed a chance at a much bigger play because the Patriots screwed up their coverage, and tight end James Casey was uncovered down the middle.
Walter dropped a fourth-down pass with 4:49 left in the half, but Schaub should make a better throw toward the sideline, and not lead Walter into cornerback Kyle Arrington.
Two minutes later, Schaub air-mailed Foster in the right flat while Casey was open down the middle as Schaub faced some pressure.
At the two-minute warning, Schaub threw into triple coverage to Johnson — Aqib Talib broke it up at the last second — while Daniels was underneath one-on-one with safety Tavon Wilson. On the next play, fourth down, Schaub made a poor throw under pressure to an open Walter.
Schaub showed a little bit of improvement in last Sunday’s 19-13 wild-card victory over the Bengals, but he still left a few key plays on the field.
The interception he threw for a touchdown was poorly thrown, and Schaub missed a golden opportunity with Walter one-on-one with the safety on a corner route. And on third and goal in the second quarter, Schaub’s throw under pressure to Johnson in the end zone wasn’t good enough.
If Schaub can find a way to make even half of those plays against the Patriots, the Texans are going to be in the game for a while. But will he? Schaub hasn’t shown any signs of that of late. His mechanics have been sloppy, and they get worse — his plant leg opens more and more to the sideline as the game goes on — the more pressure he feels.
As for Phillips, he’s will have to find an effective strategy to defend both Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski was injured the first time around, and Phillips’s group, outside of a handful of blown coverages, did a solid job, despite the score.
Phillips uses his 3-4 base defense or a dime package with four linemen, one linebacker, and six defensive backs (three safeties). It’s fairly effective against teams with one bona fide tight end. Free safety Glover Quin, who plays linebacker in the dime, was terrific against Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham, and had his moments against Hernandez in the dime as well (base was a different story).
But how is Phillips going to handle both Hernandez and Gronkowski? If he sticks with dime, the Patriots will run the ball. Is Phillips confident his players can defend the pass in base defense?
What Phillips draws up, and whether Schaub can morph into an aggressive, confident thrower will determine whether the Texans can pull the upset.
Here are the Texans’ positional ratings from the victory over the Bengals and the first three quarters against the Patriots:
Quarterback (1.5 out of 5)
Schaub has the tools and the smarts, he just hasn’t put it together and doesn’t inspire much confidence that he will. He needs to come out with his hair on fire Sunday, because slow and methodical is not going to deliver a victory. The Texans offense was actually holding its own against the Patriots until the sack on which James Casey and Duane Brown were beaten by Trevor Scott and Rob Ninkovich. The blocking was certainly to blame for the sack, but Schaub had his part in it. It was the usual play-action, deep-drop throw the Texans run all the time. But it took 3.32 seconds for Schaub to get hit. He has to be quicker on that and realize he’s not going to have all day to throw once he goes through the fake. The Patriots don’t fall for fakes like that unless you have established the run. Schaub did a nice job looking off the safety before coming back to Jean for a big first down on third and 12 on the second series. Schaub showed improved recognition against the Bengals, as when he smartly found Casey for 20 yards midway through fourth Continued...