Richard Hill of our sister site, Pats Pulpit, is back again for round two of our questions in advance of this weekend’s rematch between the Texans and Patriots. New England routed Bill O’Brien’s squad in all three phases of the game early in the regular season. Should we expect the same thing to happen tonight now that Houston has seemingly found their groove? Let’s ask Rich and find out.
1. After a few months to think it over, how do you now view the Jaime Collins trade? Should New England have kept him around for their playoff run?
Collins has not played well in Cleveland since the trade and the inconsistent effort he gave with the Patriots is highlighted when his teammates are unable to clean up around him. There's no question that Collins is an All-Pro caliber athlete, but the best defenders have a necessary mental approach to the game; Collins doesn't necessarily love football enough to maximize his ability. It was clear that Collins wasn't going to live up to the mega-money contract that he would demand in free agency, so the Patriots made the smart decision to receive whatever compensation they could get.
That said, the Patriots have used a rotation of Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin, and Elandon Roberts to replace Collins. McClellin plays on running downs, Van Noy plays on passing downs, and Roberts is the third linebacker against the run. So instead of just pairing one player (Collins) next to an All-Pro like Dont'a Hightower, the Patriots have a match-up revealing substitute. If the Patriots have Van Noy on the field, the opposing team might be more willing to run the ball because he's a weaker tackler; if McClellin is playing, they might challenge his coverage ability. Collins was a do-it-all player that offered plenty of versatility.
2. Despite missing the first month of the season, does Tom Brady deserve the MVP award? Do Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, or Ezekiel Elliott have better cases?
Matt Ryan is definitely the MVP in my book. Not just because Brady missed four games, but because Ryan was producing at a record-setting level. I don't put Rodgers or Elliott in that conversation, although I expect Rodgers to receive more votes than Brady. Brady might have been the best quarterback in the league - with one game on the line, I would take Brady over Ryan - and missed his #1 target in TE Rob Gronkowski for half the season, but he also had a much, much better defense. There's a deserved debate over the best defense in football, with the Patriots throwing their #1 ranking in points allowed into the ring, but there's no question that the New England defense is excellent. Ryan was playing with a bottom 10 defensive unit and still produced. He has more value to his team.
3. What would you say are the strengths and weaknesses of the Patriots’ offense without Rob Gronkowski in the lineup?
Unlike in years past, the Patriots have better depth all across the roster. TE Martellus Bennett was excellent when Gronkowski was unavailable early in the year, and I have a theory that they've limited Bennett's snaps down the stretch to avoid potential injury. Bennett's going to be a big part of the offense. WR Julian Edelman has emerged as one of the most productive wide receivers in the NFL over the second half of the season, with more yards from scrimmage over the final eight games than any other receiver. RB LeGarrette Blount led the league in rushing touchdowns, and RB Dion Lewis is back to his electric self. WR Chris Hogan is a pretty solid deep threat.
But there's no Gronkowski on the roster. The playoffs are a time where players put forward game-changing performances, and I'm not sure if the Patriots have the players capable of taking over a game like Gronkowski was able to do on a regular basis. Don't get me wrong, there are at least eight players on the Patriots that could explode for 100+ yards on a given day (Edelman, Hogan, Mitchell, Amendola, Bennett, Blount, Lewis, White), and Michael Floyd is another drop in the talent bucket, but Gronkowski scares defenses. He dictates the game. That's a value the Patriots might not have anymore.
4. How about the strengths and weaknesses of New England’s defense?
The strength of the Patriots’ defense is its ability to stop the run. New England runs a seven-man rotation on the line (Trey Flowers, Chris Long, Rob Ninkovich, and Jabaal Sheard on the edge; Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, and Vincent Valentine on the interior), and every player does an excellent job of holding down their roles, making plays, or at least opening up a lane for a linebacker to make a play. The Patriots win on a weekly basis by stopping the run early on, allowing the offense to build an early lead, and then dropping back into coverage.
There are three Second Team All-Pros in CB Malcolm Butler, FS Devin McCourty, and LB Dont'a Hightower, and that trio makes up the heart of the Patriots defense. They're able to lock down their roles and play at a high level for the entire game. The players next to them, however, are less consistent. CB Logan Ryan, CB Eric Rowe, LB Shea McClellin, LB Kyle Van Noy, and LB Elandon Roberts have been benched at different points during the year for their play. They have all stepped up their performances down the stretch, but it's something to monitor. SS Patrick Chung hasn't been benched, but he hasn't been playing up to the same level of coverage against tight ends as years past, either.
The defense also struggles with tempo offenses. When the opposing quarterback gets into a rhythm through the no-huddle, it seems like the defense collapses on that drive and gives up a field goal. They always rally for the next drive and give a fresh start, but if the opposing quarterback makes a pair of throws, it seems like the defense gives up.
5. Put your name on it. What is the score of this game and why?
I think the Patriots find a way to score and to prevent the Texans from moving the ball. I think Tom Brady knows the Romeo Crennel defense like the back of his hand and he'll put up at least four touchdown drives. The Texans’ reliance on the run game to establish their offense feeds into the Patriots’ defensive strengths. Patriots win, 31-13.
Thanks to Rich for taking the time to answer our questions. Make sure to head over to Pats Pulpit to see what Patriots fans think about the Texans and the game tonight.