Curran's Patriots-Texans preview

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Curran's Patriots-Texans preview

HOUSTON – The Patriots are staring down the barrel of a three-game losing streak. It would be their first skid like that since 2002. The reality is, this game in Houston may be tougher than the previous two. Against Denver, the Patriots still had Gronk and were going against a quarterback making his second start. Philly would have been meat if the Patriots hadn’t given them 21 points on mistakes and taken three off the board with the Brady pick-6. Teams don’t survive handing over 24 points. But Houston’s defense is the wrong group at the wrong time for the Patriots. The Texans sit at 6-6 after a 2-5 start that looked like it would lead to a full housecleaning. They lost to Buffalo last week, 30-21.

WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
What was previously so easy is now so hard. We told you earlier this week how the Patriots were at 51 percent third down conversions until Julian Edelman went down and now are 15 for 52 (28 percent) since. Tom Brady said earlier this week that it is also ineptitude on first and second down that’s leading to third-and-unmanageable. So that’s even less encouraging. Houston is best in the league on third down allowing just 28 percent conversions. Running a 3-4 with old friend Vince Wilfork in the middle, one-man carnival JJ Watt at defensive end, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus at outside linebackers and Brian Cushing at inside linebacker, the Texans are pretty stocked. They also have a good corner in Johnathan Joseph. The Patriots need to get some production on the ground to stay out of third-and-long. The simple lament is that LeGarrette Blount is not good. We’re not getting a chance to determine that because first contact is coming behind the line of scrimmage. There’s no push up front from the offensive line. Houston allowed 187 on the ground last week to the Bills. They hadn’t allowed more than 86 on the ground in their previous four games. It wouldn’t be so bad if the Patriots game were unreliable but the air attack worked. That’s not the case. Brandon LaFell is a physical receiver and has nice athletic ability. He just doesn’t have great feel for the nuances of option routes and being on the same mental page with Brady. Usually, that’s not a big deal. He has less on his plate and has specific routes on which he’s featured. Now that Brady wants to rely on LaFell it shows up more. Danny Amendola is gutting it out on a sore knee. He played great last week but he’s not going to be able to get customary separation at less than full strength. Still, he’ll be the third down chain-mover. Scott Chandler was better last week than against Denver and – although he still got handcuffed on a third-and-5 pass before the half that wound up being costly – I think he’ll have a solid game. KeShawn Martin saw eight balls go his way last week – a season high. I think he deserves more looks. Same with James White. He is not an electric back by any stretch but he keeps producing when the ball goes to him.

WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
As mightily as the Patriots offense could struggle in this one, Houston is probably in the same boat. The Texans have run the ball better in recent games with Alfred Blue and changeup back Chris Polk (173 yards between them in the past two games on 38 carries) but the Patriots have been a good run-stopping team for most of the season. The last six quarters they played without Donta Hightower have been concerning, though. New England needs to do a better job getting backs on the ground. The normally sure-tackling secondary players for the Patriots have not been as effective in run support and the Patriots got lit up by Darren Sproles and C.J. Anderson. The Texans most potent offensive weapon is the dynamic DeAndre Hopkins. He’s like Odell Beckham Jr., but bigger (5-11 to 6-2). Keep that in mind if Malcolm Butler draws Hopkins duty and is unable to undress DeAndre as he did Beckham. Nate Washington and Cecil Shorts are the other two targets for Brian Hoyer. They are not game-changers. The Patriots need to make it so that Hoyer is looking to those two to make things happen, not Hopkins. As for Hoyer, he’s accurate, tough and generally smart. He can be prone to taking some risks, though, and the Patriots need to make him pay. He’s also a great competitor and, this being an opportunity to play against a team that he’s got history with, could bring out the best in him. Beware the Hoyer. Houston doesn’t allow many sacks.

THE KICKING GAME
What has traditionally been a huge checkmark for the Patriots has cost them the last two games. The Chris Harper fumble in Denver opened the gate for that loss; the punt block against the Eagles was the jumpstart for Philly. So correctable. The Patriots play as they normally do on special teams and they are 12-0 even with the injuries. Be that as it may, Houston is a pedestrian fourth-down group. Shane Lechler is a big-legged punter but he’s got a penchant for outkicking his coverage, hence the 38.6 net punting average. The kicker is Nick Novak. He’s missed one attempt this season. This could be a game that comes down to field position and field goals. The Patriots should have the edge there.


PATRIOTS MEDICAL REPORT

OUT: WR Julian Edelman (foot); QUESTIONABLE: WR Danny Amendola (knee), TE Scott Chandler (knee), S Patrick Chung (foot), CB Justin Coleman (hand), TE Rob Gronkowski (knee), LB Donta Hightower (knee), OL Josh Kline (shoulder), WR Matt Slater (stinger). PROBABLE: OL Marcus Cannon (toe), DE Chandler Jones (abdomen), S Devin McCourty (shoulder), TE Michael Williams (knee)

TEXANS MEDICAL REPORT

PROBABLE: DE JJ Watt (groin/hand), WR DeAndre Hopkins (hamstring), RB Alfred Blue (back), G Brandon Brooks (illness/toe), T Duane Brown (knee), LB Max Bullough (shoulder), LB Jadeveon Clowney (hamstring), NT Christian Covington (knee), CB Kareem Jackson (ankle), CB Charles James (calf), C Ben Jones (hip), CB Johnathan Joseph (knee), LB Whitney Mercilus (back), T Derek Newton (elbow), RB Chris Polk (knee), WR Cecil Shorts (hamstring).

GAME WITHIN THE GAME

Keeping the heat off of Tom Brady. The sacks, hits and pressures are starting to add up, despite his claim that he’s “fresh as lettuce.” The diabolical combination of poor work in protection and an inability to get separation in the passing game has Brady holding the ball longer than he wants and taking punishment. The Texans can mete out punishment with the best of them. The Patriots need to get their ground game going and stay out of third-and-long as they were against the Eagles or there’s more punishment in store.


TEXANS GOTTA STOP
Danny Amendola. He’s such a tough, smart and quick player. Last week, there were two third-down catches that were remarkable and his touchdown route was incredible. Tom Brady is going to look to Amendola because he’s the one Brady trusts in pivotal situations. If the Texans are doing their job defensively, the number of third down looks Amendola gets will be real low.

PATRIOTS GOTTA STOP
DeAndre Hopkins. We could certainly say J.J. Watt and not be wrong. But so much of the Texans offense runs through Hopkins that, if New England can rub him out, Houston will be relegated to going elsewhere. And it’s pretty clear that Brian Hoyer would prefer not to do that. Expect Malcolm Butler to get primary Hopkins duty but also plenty of help.


THAT SUMS IT UP PATRIOTS STYLE
“Ideally you’d always like to get the ball out on time in the pass game. I think whether it’s some things we’ve done schematically or the opposing team has done schematically against us has forced us to hold the ball a little bit longer. I wish we would just be able to stay in rhythm. Every offense I’m sure would love that. Judging by the results I need to get the ball out quicker. I’ve just got to find an open guy and try to get it to the guys that can actually do something with it because usually when it’s in my hands there’s nothing good happening – aside from the catch last week. I think we’ve just got to get it to the guys who can do something with it – the skill guys – that can ultimately get the ball in the end zone.” – Tom Brady on the need to get rhythm back in the offense.

THAT SUMS IT UP TEXANS STYLE
“They’ll be hungry. Everybody wants to win. It’s the time of year that it’s big, you know what I mean, it’s December, a lot of teams want to win in December. They want to be good going into the playoffs. We are trying to fight to get into the playoffs. It’s a big game all-around. I don’t know if people will say it is a trap game or nothing like that, but both teams are hungry and want to win.” – Cecil Shorts, Texans wide receiver, on what he expects from the Patriots.


VEGAS SAYS
The Patriots are three-point favorites on the road and the total is 45. As 9.5-point favorites last week against Philly, the Patriots failed to cover. And, for the second game in a row, the total got blown away late as the two teams combined for 63 points. The total was 49.

THE WINNER IS...
Texans 19, Patriots 16

 

Friday Bag: What’s the Patriots' future at running back look like?

Friday Bag: What’s the Patriots' future at running back look like?

Every Friday Tom E. Curran, Mike Giardi and Phil Perry will take your Patriots questions (Curran is sitting this one out) on Twitter and answer them as a joint mailbag -- or a Friday Bag, as they call it. 

Got questions? Tweet the guys using the hashtag #FridayBag.

MG: Q leading off my portion of the always popular, always exciting, always (occasionally?) informative #FridayBag. I think it would be easy to think that way from the outside looking in, or knowing how callous some organizations can be, but I just don’t believe that to be the case here. Players talk. Agents talk. Hell, coaches talk. If the Pats were to operate that way, it would get around the league in a heartbeat. Then why would someone want to play here knowing they’ll be treated even more like a disposable commodity then normal? The flip side to this is actually protecting the player from himself. Guys in the last year of a deal sometimes feel compelled to play through every damn thing so they can at least say “look at me, I’m a warrior!” And on that note, I’d sit Marty Bennett next week in Denver and probably the following week against the Jets if that will help the ankle and whatever else is ailing him heal to the point where he’s a hell of a lot more effective than what we just saw versus the Rams (He was awful). Bennett’s too valuable going forward. 

MG: Lisa, my understanding is teams nominate their player and then it goes to a panel (one that includes the NFL Commish) to decide who wins for the league (It was Anquan Boldin in 2015). Can’t quibble with Rob Gronkowski being the team’s nominee this year. People have no idea how much he does for the community. Heck, we don’t even know the extent of it, but the great Don Rodman of Rodman Car Dealer fame and one of the most incredibly charitable individuals to ever grace this area said that there are few if any athletes who devote more time and effort to charitable works/foundations. I hope he wins. It would mean a lot to Gronk.

MG: You never figured you’d have to worry about the offense, did you Steve? But the season-ending injury to Gronk and now the injury to Danny Amendola does concern me. Both of those guys are incredibly reliable 3rd down targets, and in Gronk’s case, he’s usually the first or second option on 3rd down. Bennett hasn’t been able to pick up the slack because he’s clearly not healthy either. That means the Pats and Josh McDaniels will be going through a trial and error period here to best determine how to improve that number and become more efficient. I suspect more will fall on Julian Edelman, but also look for the continued evolution of the two back set with James White and Dion Lewis.

MG: Ambrose, the Pats have remained incredibly committed to the run because they don’t want to find themselves in the same spot they were a year ago, when the run game was so pathetic that neither Miami in the regular season finale nor Denver in the AFC title game paid it one mind. That means rushers pinning their ears back and smashing into Tom Brady at rates no one is comfortable with. So while I won’t be surprise if Brady throws it 45 times, I don’t think they shelve the ground game, at least in the first half. 

MG: Ok Bunk, I stole a comment of yours for the mailbag. Trying to make you famous…yes, I stand by my tweet in which I stated the Ravens and Broncos are bigger threats than the Chiefs or Raiders. Oakland’s defense would give up 40 to Brady. 45 if the Pats needed it. Or 50. I’m dead serious. As for the Chiefs, Alex Smith is not coming into Foxboro and beating this team, even with some of it’s defensive issues. And Belichick will make damn sure that rookie Hill doesn’t get many cracks at touching the football in the return game. Oh, and now the Chiefs best linebacker, Johnson, is out for the year with an Achilles. Should I continue???

MG: History tells us no, David. Brady would throw a fit and argue that he needs to play to remain sharp or iron out this problem or that problem. There’s also the possibility of a bye week looming, meaning he’d go 3 weeks without actually playing in a game. Seems like a good idea in the sense that you don’t risk a 39-year old to a blindside shot, but neither he nor Belichick would ever go for it.

PP: The running back position might be the toughest to project moving forward because there are so many injuries there and there are so many backs who come from nowhere to earn significant roles. I'll say this though: The backs they have on the roster -- not including Brandon Bolden, who has turned into strictly a special teamer after having a difficult time holding onto the football this year -- don't seem to be slowing down. LeGarrette Blount just turned 30 but is in the middle of his best season. Dion Lewis looks strong after two surgeries. James White has taken his game to a new level in his third season. I could see the same group coming back next season, but given the volatility of the position, you know the Patriots will always be scouring for talent there. 

PP: Tom E. touched on this yesterday, Big Wally. Brandon Pettigrew, who was released by the Lions on Friday, might make sense. Otherwise, there's not a whole lot out there. Zach Sudfeld? He's available. Would be an unlikely reunion, but desperate times . . . I think the Patriots will continue to roll out Martellus Bennett at less than 100 percent. I think Matt Lengel could see more work as a blocking tight end as he becomes more familiar with the system. I think we'll see more Cameron Fleming, and we could see more two-back sets with no tight ends. In my opinion, Bennett could use a rest, but I don't think it's coming any time soon. As far as Sarge's question about the hurry-up, I'm not sure we'll start to see more that. It's possible, but one of the benefits with the hurry-up is to keep a defense from substituting to shift matchups in its favor. With Gronkowski or Bennett on the field in a hurry-up situation would have even further highlighted the matchup issues they present. If either one found himself with a slow linebacker on him, the Patriots could have rushed to the line and continued...to exploit...that matchup. Without Gronkowski and without Bennett at full strength, the advantage of the no-huddle is somewhat sapped.  

PP: It's so late into the season, I'm not sure there's much in the way of opportunity for a breakout game this week, Paul. I guess the obvious choice would be Griff Whalen. If he can give the Patriots a pair of sure hands as a punt-returner, that would be a significant enough add that I might qualify it as a "breakout." Bill Belichick made it clear this morning that the team views him as more than just a returner, though, so he could see some offensive snaps in four-receiver sets and provide the Patriots with a presence in the slot. I'd deem a four-catch, 50-yard performance as a "breakout" as well. To me, that's the range of his ceiling for this week. One other name as a potential "breakout" candidate? Justin Coleman. He could be used defensively after being inactive for the last three weeks due to Eric Rowe's hamstring injury. If he's able to help slow down the combination of Mike Wallace, Breshad Perriman and Steve Smith, that'd be a breakout in my book. 

PP: The combined record of opponents they've beaten is actually 26-57-1, including the Browns 0-12 mark twice, but now it's out there. 'Preciate you, Dave!

PP:  There's still so much up for grabs in the AFC West that it's hard to determine the likelihood of Patriots playoff matchups and where those games will be. However, without getting into the nitty gritty details, I'll just point out that it's still possible that the Patriots end up on the road in either of these cities in the postseason. On the road, Denver is the tougher matchup. Always has been a brutal place for the Patriots to play, and Denver's defense is still good enough to cause them problems. At home? I'd say, of these two teams, Kansas City would be the one that would provide the Patriots with a slightly tougher test. In my mind, they're a little more balanced and I have more faith in Alex Smith to make plays than I do Trevor Siemien.

Friday's Patriots-Ravens practice report: Richards returns to the field

Friday's Patriots-Ravens practice report: Richards returns to the field

Friday's practice participation/injury report for Monday night's Patriots-Ravens game:

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

DID NOT PARTICIPATE
WR Danny Amendola (ankle)

LIMITED PARTICIPATION
TE Martellus Bennett (ankle/shoulder)
DB Jordan Richards (knee)
LB Elandon Roberts (hamstring)
DB Eric Rowe (hamstring)
WR/SpT Matthew Slater (foot)

BALTIMORE RAVENS

DID NOT PARTICIPATE
TE Crockett Gilmore (thigh)
LB Terrell Suggs (not injury related)
RB Lorenzo Taliaferro (thigh)
C Jeremy Zuttah (not injury related)

LIMITED PARTICIPATION
G Alex Lewis (ankle)

FULL PARTICIPATION
G Marshal Yanda (shoulder)