FOXBORO -- For all the personnel shuffling the injury-plagued Patriots have done this season they've at least had continuity at quarterback. The offense struggled to start, but has come around.
Houston has not been so lucky.
Though the Texans defense is still anchored by J.J. Watt, and statistically the best in the league, the offense has been shaken up too much to hit any kind of stride. Quarterback Matt Schaub first lost his job for injury; once healthy, he stayed on the bench. Houston's brass decided Schaub's 8 touchdowns to 9 interceptions weren't enough to hand him the job back.
It is Case Keenum who will try his hand against New England this Sunday. Yes, the Case Keenum who went undrafted in 2012. The Case Keenum who was signed to back up the backup.
"He's been a real good decision maker. The defense hasn't had their hands on many balls," Bill Belichick noted Friday. "So he's got pretty good judgment, pretty good accuracy, he's athletic. They run a lot of bootlegs anyway, but he's athletic in the pocket, can get away from the rush and buy a little more time."
Keenum, who got his first start this year in Week 7, has not stopped Houston's bleeding, but has slowed it some. His decisions have certainly been better than Schaub's as Belichick pointed out; he's thrown just 2 picks to 8 touchdowns, and his last interception was off a bobbled ball his receiver should have caught. The Texans are still losing, but have lost the last five games by an average of just 3.8 points. They've also raised their average points per game from 11.3 in Weeks 3-6 to 18.6 in Weeks 7-12.
Incidental numbers for a team that's 2-9? Not really. These notes are all valuable to Belichick. He sees an offense that doesn't look all that dissimilar from the one that won Houston last season's AFC South title.
"They're the type of team that will mix up their formations and their personnel, but I'd say the plays are pretty much their core plays. But they window-dress them; they make it harder for you to recognize them with different shifts and motions, personnel groups. With the way they position their players, by the time the ball's snapped, the guys end up doing what their core plays -- their stretch play, their inside zone play, their flash play, their different bootlegs. They have a little different look to them, but it's really still their core stuff."
Bootlegs made all the sense in the world when Houston employed a receiver like Andre Johnson and a back like Arian Foster. With defenses forced to account for both players on every snap, Houston could take advantage of the single-coverage opportunities that opened up for guys like tight end Owen Daniels.
"They’re running wide so you have to defend the boundary. You have to defend the backside on the boot, so it gives you a lot of width; it forces your defense to handle a lot of width. Then when the defense stretches, the backs, when they hit that third step, they’re looking to get downhill. I don’t want to say cut it back, but they cut downhill. If your defense doesn’t get wide enough, they hit the edge. If they get too wide, the back comes downhill," Belichick explained.
"You can’t let the backside go because of the amount of bootlegs that they run. Even if you bring an eighth guy into the box, so to speak, against seven, that eighth guy has to take the quarterback. He doesn’t have to, but you better have somebody on him. So if the eighth guy takes the quarterback, then you don’t have him to chase those plays down from the backside. That’s how they keep you honest."
Johnson is still working hard, racking up 1,002 yards and five touchdowns so far this season. But things just aren't the same without Foster. Thanks to a back injury that required surgery, Foster's season ended after just eight games and 542 rushing yards. Houston also misses Daniels, who fractured a leg Week 5.
It is a patchwork offense still being stitched together. Head coach Gary Kubiak is still trying to figure out whether Keenum works better in shotgun or under center. He's still trying to tailor schemes to his new QB's strengths.
Yet Belichick still gives the Texans credit for how they handle the numbers game.
"It's similar to the zone-option, read-option program because in that, it’s the same thing: they hand the ball off to the running back, but somebody has to take the quarterback on the keep. Well, in their offense, somebody has to handle their quarterback on the boot or you let him stand out there by himself and throw. That’s not a good situation so he accounts for the extra guy you could potentially bring down into the front. It forces you to play seven-on-seven or six-on-six or however the formation is displaced."
Houston may run some smart plays, but translating the yardage to points has been the problem. And despite Belichick's praise, it doesn't sound like things will get any easier this Sunday.