To say that the challenge in front of the Bulls On Parade would be anything other than daunting would be incorrect.
The New England Patriots sit number one in the following categories: points per game, offensive yards per game, first downs per game, third down conversion rate, team offense DVOA, and pass offense DVOA. They are top-10 in passing and rushing yards per game and sit a quiet second in rush offense DVOA. All in all, this is the best offense in the league and thus the biggest challenge of the season for Wade Phillips and his Bulls On Parade.
Unlike Aaron Rodgers earlier this season, Tom Brady is not coming into Monday night pissed off and there will be no 'Man on Fire' domination. The Patriots are the AFC East champions for the ninth time in the last 11 seasons and are seeming like a pretty well-oiled machine, struggles against Miami notwithstanding. Between the well-oiled precision and the statistical impressiveness, what can the Bulls On Parade do to slow Brady's offense?
According to ESPN Stats and Information, Tom Brady has thrown 15 touchdowns and zero interceptions when defenses rush five or more defenders. Houston has blitzed on 43.7% of their defensive snaps, tops in the league. That is not to say that the Texans should not blitz. You can always blitz, so long as you get there. Unfortunately, this is something Houston has struggled with at times this season, but Wade will need, and should look, to mix up his looks often to keep the veteran Brady on his heels.
Back to the point--whether Houston goes with a four-man rush or blitzes, the emphasis will be on the coverage to stick with Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, and Aaron Hernandez. As we remember from the Frank Bush days, it does not matter how many you rush if the quarterback can find an open receiver. The secondary, which often plays man-to-man coverage, will need to stick with their man to help the pass rush out. A healthy Johnathan Joseph can make a world of difference for Houston's back-end. I would also expect to see some zone from all of the linebackers, particularly around the middle of the field where Welker and Hernandez roam, too. Again, I do expect Wade to really do his best to keep Brady guessing on who is dropping into coverage and who is coming after him.
Regardless of Wade throwing some new wrinkles at Brady, I imagine that Welker, the leading receiver in New England, will always get special attention. Welker leads New England in receptions (92), targets (133), yards (1,064), yards after the catch (489), first down receptions (53). Welker also has 25 of his 92 catches on third downs. Welker has only had one game this season with fewer than five receptions. With no Rob Gronkowski, Welker is Brady's homeboy and security blanket.
Naturally, the slot receiver will draw the slot cornerback. In this instance, the slot corner would be Brandon Harris due to the injury to Brice McCain. Last week against Tennessee, Harris was aggressive with his coverage. He did have a few passes defensed, but the self-dubbed 'No Fly Zone' also drew some flags. In addition, I imagine Wade will have either 'Hit Stick' Glover Quin or one of the linebackers bracketing Welker. Quin is also capable of covering Welker in the slot, so do not be surprised if Quin lines up over him. The flexibility in talent allows Wade to blitz one of those defensive backs, which mixes up Brady's reads.
Whether Houston mixes up coverage, brackets Welker, or has an active pass rush, the Bulls on Parade must stick to what they are great at - creating turnovers. A big reason why New England has been so successful is the fact that they have only had nine turnovers. The sack-strips, the big hit fumbles, the tipped pass/interception combination need to show up on Monday. With a team that leads the league in scoring, Houston has to do what it can to end scoring opportunities. As I stated before, if the coverage can stick with the receivers then there should be more opportunities for coverage sacks and, as a result, a chance to pry away the ball from Brady's blindside. If Houston's defense cannot force mistakes and help win the turnover battle, I cannot see Houston being successful in Foxboro.
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