Setting the table for Patriots-Texans

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Setting the table for Patriots-Texans

Idle Friday thoughts while cleaning out the desk drawer of my mind and riffling through Springsteen and Neil Young lyrics to find something apt to apply to this weekend's game at Gillette Field.

Wade Phillips dawdled into a verbal snafu Thursday when he used the words "not" and "a real athletic guy" when discussing Wes Welker. Phillips was actually describing Welker in relation to A.J. Green, who is 6-foot-4 and can jump out of the gym. Wes Welker is 5-9 and cannot jump out of the gym. "Ah, Welkers not Green, Phillips said. Hes a good player, but hes not that big or a real athletic guy. Hes a quick guy that gets open on option routes. The perceived slight on Welker was quickly seized upon forcing Phillips to take to Twitter to stomp out flames of indignation.

Wade Phillips @sonofbum Wes Welker is a great athlete and one of the best receivers of all time- twistthataround
Twitter. It's a helluva place.
It's been amusing this week to listen to the media weigh in on what players should and shouldn't use for motivation. Ummm, they're the players... they can use whatever they want.

You think Gary Kubiak doesn't know how to brain battle and get into some gamesmanship with the Patriots? The Texans head coach strayed from his customary sharing of injury information early in the week. Asked the status of tight end Garrett Graham, Kubiak said, "Were going to talk about injuries on Wednesday. So well update you guys. Thatll be the first time well talk about that.

Why? "Ive got a new philosophy, thats what I was told," Kubiak replied. "That was my philosophy, starting today so thats my philosophy. Well talk about it on Wednesday.The Patriots, you may have heard, are less forthcoming than most teams about injuries.

With both Brian Kelly (Everett) and Chip Kelly (Manch-vegas, New Hampshire) and Bill O'Brien (Dorchester) all being courted for NFL head coaching jobs - and opting to stay at Notre Dame, Oregon and Penn State respectively, the tide of coaches with New England (mainly Massachusetts) ties taking over top spots in the NFL was stemmed a bit. In addition to those three, Medway's Pete Carmichael (offensive assistant for the Saints) was in the mix and could soon get his shot at a head job. And the Dolphins staff is littered with Mass guys led by head coach Joe Philbin (Springfield), OC Mike Sherman (Norwood), line coach Jim Turner (Braintree), wide receivers coach Ken O'Keefe (Worcester Academy), and strength coach Dave Puloka (Arlington).

The key player on the NFC side of the playoffs? Justin Smith. The Niners defensive tackle left the game against the Patriots with a torn triceps and the decline of the San Fran defense was breathtaking. He'll be back for the Divisional Playoff game against the Packers, but what level he can play at may determine whether San Fran has another game next week.

It will be interesting to see what happens next with Armond Armstead, the defensive tackle the Patriots worked out earlier this week. Armstead went undrafted in 2012 after having a star-crossed college career at USC. Released by the CFL's Toronto Argonauts (reportedly by mutual agreement if an NFL opportunity arose), Armstead had six sacks for Toronto this past season. The 6-5, 298-pound Armstead is not eligible to be added to the Patriots roster during the playoffs because of NFLCFL rules. He could be a target for 2013, though.

Wow. The Jets Mike Westhoff, their retiring special teams coach, carpet-bombed the organization on the radio Friday morning. Given the performance of the Jets special teams in 2012, this is one of those pot-calling-the-kettle-a-glass-house deals. Here's a route to the full audio from The Joe Rose Show.

The always insightful Matt Bowen from National Football Post goes inside the Xs and Os of the Patriots play-action game against the Texans. The question to me is whether Wade Phillips has it in him to back off his blitzing nature and drop more guys into coverage and make Tom Brady process more defenders. If he doesn't, the Texans are meat.

The more I consider this Patriots-Texans game, the more I believe it won't be the same blowout as last time. Patriots 41, Texans 14.

Butler, Brown set to square off again in AFC title game

Butler, Brown set to square off again in AFC title game

FOXBORO -- The general consensus has been that when it comes to defending Antonio Brown, or any No. 1 receiver for that matter, the Patriots have two options: Use their top corner Malcolm Butler in man-to-man coverage or double-team him.

There are benefits to each. Butler has the speed an quickness to effectively mirror Brown's routes. Meanwhile, Logan Ryan has found recent success in teaming up with teammates to slow down top options like Houston's DeAndre Hopkins, who was the target when Devin McCourty broke up a fourth-quarter pass that resulted in a Ryan interception last week. 

Both the Steelers and the Patriots seemed to indicate that they knew which way Bill Belichick will lean this weekend. 

"[I] assume maybe that [Butler] will follow AB around," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "He’s a guy that really has just come into the role of being pretty much a shutdown corner."

"[Butler] takes this as a big challenge," Patriots defensive captain Dont'a Hightower said. "We obviously know what Antonio Brown is. He’s arguably the best wide receiver in the league. We know what kind of matchup threat he poses. We expect Malcolm to take advantage of that, and I know he’s ready to rise up to that challenge." 

But Brown -- named a First-Team All-Pro this season after reeling in 106 passes for 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns -- has the ability to make one singular plan of attack obsolete, eventually. The Patriots will have to throw different looks at him to keep him guessing, keep Roethlisberger thinking, and keep their connection somewhat under control.

Here are a few of the options . . . 

COVER-1

In Week 7 against the Steelers, this seemed to be the coverage of choice for the Patriots. They used Butler to shadow Brown all over the field for much of the game while one safety patrolled the deep middle portion of the field.

The third-year corner saw nine targets sent his way while in coverage of Brown. Five were caught for 94 yards.

Though the numbers looked pretty good for Brown fantasy owners, Butler had one of his stronger games of the season, making an interception in the end zone while draped all over his man. That was followed up by a celebrattion that mocked Brown's staple touchdown dance.

Brown and Butler have a relationship after seeing each other over the last two seasons and shooting a Visa commerical together earlier this year, and he sounded fired up to go against Brown again this weekend.

"Most definitely I respect that guy," Butler said of Brown this week. "Great player obviously, and (I) just love to compete and he loves to compete also."

Though Butler found himself on what looked like an island in plenty of situations back in Week 7, the Patriots also had their deep safeties (McCourty and Duron Harmon) keep a close eye on Brown as well.

But on Brown's longest catch of the game, a 51-yarder over the middle of the field, having a safety there didn't mean much due to a smart play-design by offensive coordinator Todd Haley. 

Brown was followed by Butler all the way across the field, and though Harmon may have been in position to help over the top, he had to respect the deep over route run by Steelers burner Darrius Heyward-Bey. By the time Harmon got to Brown -- Heyward-Bey actually helped slow down Harmon by screening him deep down the field -- it was too late. 

IMMEDIATE DOUBLE-TEAM

There were other instances -- like the very first third-and-long of the game for the Steelers -- when the Patriots doubled Brown off the snap with Butler and McCourty. With a player of Brown's caliber, it's not question of either single him with Butler or double him. Doubles will simply be part of the deal, in all likelihood, whether Butler's on him or not.

Back in Week 7, the Patriots were burned by Steelers secondary options on a couple of occasions when they quickly removed Brown from the equation.

The first time Brown was doubled off the snap (above), Eric Rowe was left with Heyward-Bey in a one-on-one situation and was beaten for a 14-yard touchdown in the back corner of the end zone. The second time (below), Heyward-Bey ran across the field with Rowe trailing him, scoring once again from 14 yards out.

A holding penalty negated the second score, but it seemed clear what the Patriots were trying to tell the Steelers in those situations: "Go ahead and beat us with someone else, but we won't let you do it with Brown."

Even when Brown inevitably makes plays despite the extra attention -- the Steelers will run rub routes, screens and reverses simply to get the football in his hands -- it will be incumbent upon everyone to help limit his yards after the catch, McCourty explained this week.

"Brown is a great player and Malcolm has done a great job but it’s going to be all of us," McCourty said. "All of us have to help out and make sure we try to limit him whether that’s getting everyone to the ball, whether it’s a short pass [or] intermediate pass, whether he breaks a tackle and he’s trying to reverse, we all just got to have a high sense of urgency for him and alertness and try to get to him before he’s able to break the 50-60-yard play. I think defensively we all understand that and we’re going to work on that all week."

COVER-2, 2-MAN, COVER-4, ETC., ETC., ETC...

There are plenty of other defenses that the Patriots may choose to run in order to try to take away one of the game's best play-makers. If they feel as though Heyward-Bey or Eli Rogers or another teammate of Brown's is worthy of garnering special attention from one of their safeties, they could opt for more split-safety looks -- with both McCourty and Harmon deep -- than they did in Week 7.

The fact that it's Ben Roethlisberger behind center now -- and not Landry Jones, as it was in Week 7 -- may also help dictate coverages and encourage the Patriots to be more vigilent against the explosive play. 

Bottom line: Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will employ more than one look when they take on the best passing game they've faced all season. Oftentimes that'll mean two sets of eyes on Brown, and even then that's not guaranteed to stop him.

"It's tough because the thing about Antonio Brown and players of that caliber is that they're used to the multiple attention," Ryan said. "He gets doubled, he gets attention. Every team tries to do it, and he still has the numbers he has because he's a great player. That's what great players do.

"We just need to execute a little better than what other teams do. It's possible. It's not impossible. But he's not a guy you're going to completely eliminate from the game, and we've just got to corral him as a team."