The New England Patriots have already seen the Houston Texans top ten defense, and they dominated them by putting up 42 points in front of a national audience. In fact, that 42-point outburst from the Patriots offense on the Texans defense started a slide for the Texans D that left a hole in the reputation they built over the first 12 games of the season. Houston’s D shut down the Cincinnati Bengals to the tune of 13 points allowed, but we all know that the Patriots defense is clearly superior to the Bengals unit.
Let’s take a look at five players to watch on the Texans defense, even if we have already seen these guys in action.
1. S Glover Quin
The Houston Texans are one of the best teams in the NFL against tight ends, and unheralded (on a national level) safety Glover Quin is one of the prime reasons why. He was tied with J.J. Watt for the Texans lead in pass defenses with 16, and he added another PD last week against the Bengals. Quin has improved significantly in each of the past three years, and it’s funny to think that he was once a liability at the cornerback position. Although Devin McCourty is easily the better player, Quin also improved dramatically by being moved from CB to safety. The difference is that McCourty was a good corner and Quin was poor, and that Quin is “only” a good safety while McCourty is borderline elite.
Actually, I’m selling Quin a little bit low here. He has excellent ball skills and is one of the few guys in the NFL who could possibly cover Aaron Hernandez one-on-one. It’s going to be interesting to see those two matched up, but I will say that Quin won’t have it easy against Rob Gronkowski. Gronk is just too strong for safeties.
2. OLB Whitney Mercilus
The rookie out of Illinois is Houston’s X-Factor, because he isn’t as consistent as the Texans would like him to be week-to-week. When he is at his best, he gets quick pressure on the quarterback and has six sacks on the season to prove his disruptive ability. Like most rookies, Mercilus has troubles with his consistency but he has more potential than most rookie pass rushers. When Mercilus is at his worst, he can be negated easily and has a negative impact on the team. In Week 17 against the Indianapolis Colts, Mercilus was awful and played his worst game of the season. As a result, the Texans could not get as much pressure as they should have against Colts rookie quarterback Andrew Luck.
3. DE Antoine Smith
Antoine Smith is my favorite player on the Texans defense, because he had his break out season last year and was one of the best 3-4 DEs in the NFL. Now that J.J. Watt has undergone his breakout season as a second-year player this year, Smith has been bumped down and is getting a little bit underrated. Sell Smith short at your own peril, though, because he is also a more than proficient pass rusher and run-stopper with 17 QB hits to his name.
4. DE J.J. Watt
According to the advanced metric EPA, the DPOY lock has added nearly 7.5 points per game to the Texans. Watt hit Tom Brady a few times in Week 14 and actually played a great game, but the Patriots did an even better job containing him. Although that statement is extremely paradoxical, it makes more sense when you look at the fact that Watt never recorded a sack or make a game-changing play that had a significant effect on the game. That constitutes a solid job by the Pats, because Watt has 41 tackles for loss and 23 sacks on the season.
5. CB Jonathan Joseph
Brandon Lloyd loves playing against another finesse players such as Jonathan Joseph and the rest of the Houston Texans secondary, because that allows Lloyd to get deep and gain separation better than he does against more aggressive players. Lloyd epitomizes what a silky, finesse veteran wideout is, and he took full advantage of that discrepancy against the Texans last time out with seven catches for 89 yards and a touchdown in a breakout game.
Joseph wasn’t fully healthy in that game, but he is now and is the main reason why the Texans are rated by Football Outsiders as the fourth-best team against No. 1 wide receivers this season. Lloyd should be able to have another solid game and make a big play or two, but Joseph presents a challenge for the Pats best outside threat.
You can follow Joe Soriano on Twitter @SorianoJoe.