The Texans are coming off an embarrassing overtime loss to the Titans, which ended when hometown hero (and Titans quarterback) Vince Young scrambled 39 yards into the end zone for a game-icing touchdown. The Patriots locker room was shaken up a bit this week following a devastating shutout loss to the Dolphins in a division game. The offensive linemen, who had all been growing beards as a show of solidarity, shaved them for a change of pace. And a number of roster moves were made including the release of receiver Doug Gabriel. Here are five key things the Patriots will need to do if they want to beat the Texans and get back on their feet after the loss:
Get to David Carr
Texans quarterback David Carr has had his share of failures, however, his 69.4 percent completion percentage is at the top of the league right now. Coach Bill Belichick spoke about Carr on Thursday, saying, "He has a good arm. He's a good athlete. He's the most athletic quarterback that we've faced to this point this year. Fastest. Quickest. When you see a team design running plays for a quarterback, like the toss-crack-sweep they ran against Jacksonville and quarterback draws and stuff like that, you know the guy can run."
Carr has been sacked 38 times this season, but Belichick said, "I would say for the most part, what I've seen in the times that he's been sacked, he hasn't had much of a chance. Either he didn't see the guy coming or the thing just kind of collapsed around him. But usually if he has pressure he's quick enough and athletic enough to be able to get out and either escape it or get rid of the ball to one of his check down receivers."
Carr's quick around the corner and, like Buffalo's J.P. Losman, is dangerous in scramble and boot passes. The Pats defensive line has been solid this year, but Vince Wilfork wasn't seen at practice all week, during the portion available to the media. Whether Wilfork plays or not, the Pats will need to collapse Carr's pocket and pin him inside, because if they can keep him from finding space and shut him down, the running game, which ranks 24th in the league, should be manageable.
Protect the football
The Patriots preached the importance of protecting the football and forcing turnovers leading up to the Miami game. Unfortunately, they still lost three fumbles and weren't able to get a single takeaway from the Phins.
"I think that there are certain things in the game that, unfortunately, they're always going to be a part of the game, but I think you do everything you can every week to do the things to give yourself the best opportunity to win," said a disappointed Belichick on Monday. "Turnovers are a big part of it."
In the two weeks prior to that game, the Pats gave the ball away eight times. The team's turnover differential is now at an even zero for the season, meaning they've given it away as many times as they've taken it, despite the fact that cornerback Asante Samuel's seven interceptions still leads the NFL (in a three-way tie). Turnovers cost teams games. Period. If the Patriots want to be on track before the playoffs arrive, they're going to need to cure their turnover problem.
Keep the Denver loss in mind
Texans coach Gary Kubiak is making his debut as a head coach this season after 11 years with the Broncos, where he was the offensive coordinator under coach Mike Shanahan. While Kubiak had nothing to do with the Patriots 17-7 loss to the Broncos earlier this season, Belichick said this week that it's likely the Texans are studying that game closely, since Kubiak brought the Broncos offense to Houston when he took the position. "I think that watching Denver, knowing what Denver did against us, and how they attacked us, is certainly relevant," said Belichick on Thursday. "I don't think it's the same, but I'm sure there will be some carryover at some points in the game."
On Wednesday, Belichick talked about similarities in formation and running attack, saying, "Offensively there's a lot of similarities in the running game. I think it's probably pretty much the same running game Denver has. The variation is in the frequency that the play is called or the formation that it's built out of."
One main similarity between the Texans offense and the Broncos is their stretch-zone run blocking. The scheme utilizes smaller, quicker offensive linemen, stretching the defense laterally and creating larger gaps for runners. By asking linemen to be responsible for a zone rather than a specific man, the team avoids having to force things and runners gain flexibility in being able to move through any nearby hole that opens up. The blocking is more reactionary than many power-running styles, and the speed of the play's formation is slowed a bit, leading many defenders to over-pursue.
The Texans running backs have been fairly inconsistent this season, but Houston has two playmaking receivers in Eric Moulds and Andre Johnson. The Pats will need to cover those guys if they don't want to experience Javon Walker deja vous from that Denver game.
Bend but don't breakThe Texans will arrive with receivers Johnson and Moulds. Johnson's 92 receptions leads the NFL by a margin of 23 catches, and his 1059 yards ranks sixth in the league. Moulds always gave the Pats trouble when he played for the Bills. Coach Belichick talked about Moulds on Wednesday, in a press conference with the Houston media.
"Nobody's done more against us than Moulds," said Belichick. "When Moulds goes into the Hall of Fame, I'm sure playing against the Patriots will be a big reason for him going there, he's already had well over 1,000 yards against us in his career. When you're defending against Moulds and Johnson you're going to give up something, but you'd rather give up a short pass to a back or a tight end than to be struggling down the field with those two guys who will absolutely kill you. I think in defending them you certainly have to take away those deep vertical passes because the quality of the receivers and the quarterback throwing them, you've got to give up something. You've got to give up what's in front of you, not behind you."
The Pats safeties are going to need to stay deep and cover these two receivers, opting to give up short yardage rather than getting beaten deep. The Pats haven't been great at digging themselves out, and either one of those two receivers could bury them with a single fly or post route.
Restore the run
Rookie running back Laurence Maroney was inactive last weekend. Running back Corey Dillon quieted nay-sayers when he led the Patriots running game with 16 carries for 79 of the 123 total rushing yards the Patriots produced in Miami. While Jason Taylor and Miami's defense pressured Tom Brady constantly, the running game was a bright spot for the sloppy looking Pats.
Maroney was in the locker room on Friday. He didn't say anything about his status for the game, but he did try to clear up speculation about his health.
"I got no concussion. I never had one. I got no broken ribs," was all he would say. He's listed as "Questionable" with a back injury.
"How quickly he'll be able to come back I'm not sure exactly, but he's doing a lot better now than he was a couple of days ago," said Belichick Wednesday in a conference call with the Houston media. "He's doing a lot better over the weekend than he was in the middle of the week, so he's definitely headed in the right direction."
At this point, Maroney may or may not play against the Texans. The team hasn't been as productive in the running game recently as they were at the beginning of the season. That's a concern heading into the playoffs, so look for New England to try to get Dillon, Kevin Faulk, and Heath Evans going this week against a defensive front that has been soft in the middle.
The Patriots practiced on the game field inside Gillette Stadium again today, wearing shorts/sweats, helmets and shells. The only players not seen on the field during the portion of practice available to the media were Wilfork, Benjamin Watson and O.J. Santiago. The Patriots released Santiago Friday afternoon. … Safety Rodney Harrison was seen at practice for the first time since being injured in the Colts game. He's listed as "Doubtful" on this week's injury report. … Tight end Watson, who's listed as "Questionable" this week after leaving the Dolphins game in the third quarter, was wearing a neoprene brace on his left knee in the locker room, and walked with a slight limp. … Linebacker Barry Gardner, who's been on IR since the beginning of September, appeared in the locker room today, and greeted Brady with a big hug. … Emergency quarterback and former Heisman winner Vinnie Testaverde, who throws with his right hand, was seen signing an autograph with his left hand in the locker room today. Apparently he's ambidextrous.