The Houston Texans will enter Saturday’s bout with the Patriots as one of the largest underdogs in postseason history. The outcome of this playoff tilt could depend on whether or not quarterback Brock Osweiler and his bevy of weapons can match the tempo of Tom Brady and Company (probably not). Thankfully, the Texans can win this game not on offense, but on the strength of their number one defense.
Houston’s defensive line is one of the most dominant in the NFL, and their secondary boasts some of the league’s best numbers against the pass. Led by defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and stacked with talent and leadership at nearly every position, the Texans’ defense has once again led their struggling offense into the postseason. With a playoff game in Foxborough on deck, Houston will have to lean on their exceptional defense to pull off an upset and punch their first ticket to an AFC Championship Game.
It all starts with Clowney. The stellar defensive end is clearly having the best season of his NFL career. In the wake of J.J. Watt’s injury and subsequent absence, Clowney has finally exceeded the expectations that came with his first overall selection in the 2014 NFL Draft. The defensive juggernaut, selected to his first Pro Bowl this year and named an All-Pro for the first time, managed 52 tackles, six sacks, a forced fumble, and two passes defended through the regular season. Last weekend, in his first postseason appearance, Clowney nabbed an interception and had two passes defended. But these statistics fail to do justice to the disruptive monster that Clowney has become. Everywhere on the field all at once, the former number one draft pick consistently gets pressure on opposing quarterbacks and contains offensive weapons. This Saturday, Clowney will get another chance to get after Brady, and his success will be monumental to a Houston win in Foxborough.
Whitney Mercilus is also having an explosive season. He needs to carry that momentum into Saturday’s match-up. The Houston linebacker burst into playoff mode last weekend against the Raiders, racking up seven tackles and two sacks to start his postseason. He also tallied 53 tackles, 7.5 sacks, one forced fumble, four fumble recoveries and one pass defended during the regular season. Mercilus has evolved into one of the most dangerous components of the Texans’ defensive line, pressuring quarterbacks, forcing turnovers and disrupting offensive plays left and right. Like Clowney and Benardrick McKinney, the fifth-year linebacker earned second team All-Pro honors this season and has been an essential part of the Texans’ dominance on defense. This weekend, he will play a huge role in Houston’s attempts to pressure on Brady and control New England’s aerial attack.
Containing LeGarrette Blount and the run game will be imperative as well. In September, the Patriots’ lead running back gouged the Texans for 105 yards and two touchdowns. But Houston’s interior line, led by inside linebacker tandem Brian Cushing and Benardrick McKinney and anchored by veteran nose tackle Vince Wilfork, is one of the strongest in the league. McKinney has tallied an immensely disruptive season, and the trio are capable of dominating the run and forcing mistakes in the passing game. They will need to step their production up even further this weekend, as controlling the ground game will be essential to Houston’s success.
Perhaps just as impressive as their defensive line, Houston’s group of defensive backs is one of the best in the NFL. While the loss of second year talent Kevin Johnson to injury (and subsequent IR) has been a serious blow to the unit, it has allowed for the breakout performance of rising talent A.J. Bouye. A former undrafted free agent acquisition, Bouye managed 63 tackles, 16 passes defended, an interception, and a sack this season on his route to shutdown cornerback status. In last Saturday’s playoff win over Oakland, Bouye added four passes defended and another interception. Safety Quintin Demps is also having an exceptional year, notching nine passes defended and six interceptions (tied for second in the NFL) through the regular season. Kareem Jackson, Johnathan Joseph and Andre Hal have also been pivotal to the unit’s success.
Houston has managed to limit opposing tight ends and receivers all season, thanks largely to the play of their dominant secondary. The Texans rank third in the league in total yards allowed to both positions. This weekend, Houston’s defensive backs will be tasked with containing Julian Edelman and the rest of the Pats’ talented offense. Brady and his weapons will be the most dangerous aspect of the contest, and making the New England quarterback’s job harder is Houston’s best bet to come out on top.
Odds are good that Brock Osweiler won’t walk into Foxborough suddenly capable of going touchdown for touchdown with Tom Brady. But the Texans can lean on their top-ranked defense and potentially come away with the upset on Saturday. Houston has recent history on their side, as the last three first-ranked defenses have all found themselves in the Super Bowl. Keeping Brady, Edelman and Blount under control is a daunting task, but the Texans have the tools in place to do it. It will certainly be their defense that gives them the best shot at a win on Saturday.