2. Texas rangers: Linebackers Bradie James and Barrett Ruud must hold up pass catchers Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez at the line and prevent them from getting open quickly. This forces Tom Brady to hold on and allows J.J. Watt to do damage.
3. Texas leaguers: Schaub has to get into a rhythm with dump-offs to Foster and Owen Daniels to build his confidence; he looked zombie-like at times during the team’s meltdown at Gillette last month.
Vince Wilfork has been wreaking havoc all season. The massive yet nimble tackle has superb strength and smarts. He is equally adept at bull-rushing blockers or shooting gaps and either swallowing up ball carriers or redirecting them into the arms of teammates. Brandon Deaderick and Kyle Love have become dependable contributors. On the edge, Chandler Jones (explosive) and Rob Ninkovich (smart and relentless) will bring pressure. Houston end J.J. Watt is a destructive force. He has tremendous size and strength, collapses the pocket quickly, and his favorite sport is kill the man with the ball. He also uses his long arms to bat down about 175 passes per game. Opposite end Antonio Smith is smart and shifty, and nose man Shaun Cody is a space eater.
Jerod Mayo is one of the more instinctive players in the league. He processes information quickly and uses his size, strength, and lateral quickness to get in on what seems like every tackle in every game. Brandon Spikes has become an invaluable piece to this defense and it’s obvious when he’s not on the field. The energetic Spikes is exceptional against the run. He finds runners quickly and delivers mind-numbing hits. Rookie Dont’a Hightower is an explosive hitter who will disappear at times. Bradie James, Connor Barwin, and Whitney Mercilus are the best of the bunch for Houston. James has good vision and quickness and will sift through blockers and get his nose in on a lot of tackles. The underrated Barwin has the speed to rush off the edge and the power to collect and punish runners. Mercilus is athletic and active.
The Patriots have made great strides here. From a unit that made every opposing quarterback look like Johnny Unitas to a unit that makes every opposing quarterback work hard for what he gets. Corners Aqib Talib (he’s the best cover guy), Alfonzo Dennard (he’s consistently improving), and Kyle Arrington (he’s solid in the slot) work hard. The rotating safety trio of Steve Gregory, Devin McCourty (he may see time at corner), and Patrick Chung provides solid support and some big hits. Texans corners Johnathan Joseph (he’s an excellent cover man with good ball skills) and Kareem Jackson (he’s fast and agile) are rarely out of position. Danieal Manning can play either corner or safety adequately. Safeties Glover Quin (he’s physical and rangy) and Shiloh Keo (he’s raw but willing) like to get involved.
New England has two very good return men in Devin McCourty on kickoffs and Wes Welker on punts. McCourty had a 24.2-yard average on 27 returns, including a 104-yarder for a touchdown. Welker, the full-time punt return man with Julian Edelman out, is always a threat. Stephen Gostkowski is among the best kickoff men in the league, consistently booming it through the end zone. He has hit on 29 of 35 field goal attempts. Zoltan Mesko had a 43.1-yard average on punts. Matthew Slater and Nate Ebner are coverage demons. Shayne Graham was 4 for 4 on field goals for the Texans last week but just 4 for 9 on 50-plus-yard attempts this season. Danieal Manning (kickoffs) and speed burner Keshawn Martin (punts) will handle the return duties for Houston. Alan Ball gets downfield in a hurry.
Texans RB Arian Foster vs. Patriots LB Jerod Mayo
Foster is one of the more consistent tailbacks in the league, collecting at least 1,200 yards rushing and 1,600 yards from scrimmage over each of the past three seasons. The 6-foot-1-inch, 228-pounder has excellent vision (if a crease is there, he’ll find it) and balance (he’s becoming better at deflecting hits and breaking tackles). Foster is especially adept at finding cutback lanes at the second level and continually frustrated the Bengals last week (140 yards rushing) by finding openings at the second level. He runs hard and most likely will have a chip on his shoulder Sunday after being held to 46 yards in his last trip to Foxborough. “It all starts with Foster,’’ said Patriots lineman Vince Wilfork. “The more touches he gets, the better their team is.’’ The 6-1, 250-pound Mayo is a powerfully built, heat-seeking missile with tremendous instincts and athleticism. Mayo has exceptional pre-snap recognition and is always around the ball. He’s technically the weak-side linebacker but he has the versatility and skill set to line up anywhere. He can rush the passer, is a beast against the run, and isn’t bad in coverage, either.Continued...