Dec 1, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) runs after a reception against Houston Texans safety D.J. Swearinger (36) in the fourth quarter at Reliant Stadium. The Patriots beat the Texans 34-31. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
The New England Patriots traveled to Houston, TX to face the Houston Texans. The game was hardly the much-hyped and anticipated prime-time matchup from last year as it was rolled back to the 1:00PM start time. With the Texans at 2-9 entering the game and riding a nine game losing streak, they were a very dangerous opponent as they had nothing to lose against the Patriots.
New England sleepwalked through the first half, trying to duplicate their ineffective performance against the Broncos just the week before. The Patriots, as expected, were a little flat traveling 2,000 miles after such an emotional comeback win. The surprising move was the benching of running back Stevan Ridley. After multiple fumbles in the past few weeks, the young running back was not active as Bill Belichick sent him a message loud and clear in regards to ball security.
In the second half, the Patriots offense finally came alive as they came out of the half with a five play, 78 yard drive highlighted by a 50 yard reception by tight end Rob Gronkowski on a seam route on play-action. The key was the Patriots offense going empty backfield to start the half and using running back Shane Vereen in the backfield and flexing out like a receiver on the line. Seldom used fullback James Develin played the role of the inactive Stevan Ridley and pounded the ball in from a yard out.
Just as an important start to the half by the offense, the defense got the offense the ball back quickly with a big run stuff on third-and-one. Following a timeout, the defense made a big stop on third down with rookies Joe Vellano and Chris Jones getting into the backfield to make the play on Houston’s Ben Tate.
Following the punt, New England took over and quarterback Tom Brady again emptied the backfield and operated with precision against the Houston defense. Brady found Edelman three times for 52 yards on the drive. A nine yard pass to running back Shane Vereen in the left flat as tight end Rob Gronkowski drew three defenders to him clearing out to the middle. It made it 21-17 New England ahead for the first time.
Unfortunately, the Texans came right back. Working out of the shotgun, Houston quarterback Case Keenum looked his most comfortable of the day. Mixing the short passing game against the Patriots zone defense and a steady dose of running back Ben Tate, the Texans went 81 yards on ten plays scoring on a designed quarterback run by Keenum from five yards out to put the Texans back on top 24-21.
The Patriots and Texans went back and forth as first the Patriots marched down the field across the end of the third quarter and beginning of the fourth. A nine play drive covering 81 yards ended with LeGarrette Blount pounding in from seven yards. The offense was barely off the field with a 28-24 lead when Case Keenum found DeAndre Hopkins down the left sidelines in single coverage against Kyle Arrington.
Arrington plays best inside against the slot receiver and he showed why on that play. With no safety help, Arrington lost himself on the sidelines. He was stride-for-stride with Hopkins and then looked back towards the quarterback. In doing so, he lost Hopkins and slowed to look for him. By then it was too late. Two plays later and the Texans were ahead 31-28 with 11:35 left to play.
Suddenly, both defenses tightened up. The Patriots drove forty-three yards in five plays before the Houston defense made a stop as quarterback Tom Brady tried to force a pass into tight end Rob Gronkowski on third-and-thirteen in the middle of the field near the first down marker. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski made a 53 yard field goal to tie the game at 31. After three straight incompletions by Keenum the Patriots got the ball back. For Keenum, the first two incompletions were catchable passes simply dropped by the Houston receivers and pressure by Chandler Jones on third down led to the final incompletion and led to a punt.
The Patriots moved the ball methodically down to the 35 yard line, but again they failed to convert on a key third down. It was a third-and-two when brady was unable to force it into tight end Rob Gronkowski. Gostkowski hit another 53 yard field goal and the Patriots had the lead again, 34-31.
With just over three minutes to play, Houston looked to be moving after two quick completions to receiver Andre Johnson. A big stop in the backfield by linebacker Brandon Spikes slowed the momentum, and rookie Logan Ryan made a strong play in coverage knocking the ball away to make it third down and thirteen. The Texans failed to convert as Keenum sailed the ball and almost had it picked off by Patriots rookie safety Duron Harmon. On fourth down, the Texans were forced to go for it. Rookie defensive tackle Chris Jones led the charge with a strong pass rush and forced Keenum to toss it away as Jones and Rob Nikovich wrapped him up and brought him down. The Patriots were able to run the clock down and win 34-31 in a tough road game.
After forcing a punt to start the game, the Patriots gave it right back with a quick three-and-out. From there, the Texans took advantage of their great field position and struck quickly. A five play, 52 yard drive made it 7-0 Houston and had New England playing from behind once again.
Just like against Denver, the offense picked an inopportune time to give the ball back to the opponent as quarterback Tom Brady tried a touch pass to tight end Rob Gronkowski which was picked off by cornerback Johnathan Joseph. It was telling that with rookie Aaron Dobson out again that Houston was rolling their number one cornerback Gronkowski’s way.
The loss of Dobson was further highlighted when his replacement, Kenbrell Thompkins, left injured. Without Thompkins, the Patriots utilized rookie fourth round draft pick Josh Boyce in the offense as well as the kick return game for the first time this season.
After the Brady interception, the Houston offense shot itself in the foot with an offensive pass interference penalty and was forced to kick a long field goal. Once the Patriots got the ball back, the offense showed some life. The drive started with a forty-one yard kickoff return by the speedy rookie Josh Boyce as the Patriots finally pulled running back Legarrette Blount from the role.
Although Thompkins left injured on the drive, it was the big tight end Rob Gronkowski who got New England rolling in the passing game with a quick out for six yards to start the drive. The touchdown was a fantastic rolling catch by Gronkowski on a low pass to catch for a 23 yard touchdown. Credit to the offensive line as they gave Brady five seconds to sit back and survey the field.
The Patriots spent most of the game in a zone defense rather than the aggressive man coverage that has highlighted the defense. The Patriots exposed their linebackers to the intermediate passing game with the 3-4 base defense with the zone behind them. After holding down Peyton Manning and the Denver defense last week they were burned repeatedly by young Case Keenum and the Texans offense. On the ensuing drive, the Texans exploited the zone to get downfield in a hurry.
Fortunately for the Patriots, defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and Andre Carter got pressure on Keenum and he floated a wobbly duck after being hit by the duo and the pass was intercepted by Logan Ryan. The Patriots drive stalled, however, and a missed 55 yard field goal attempt by Stephen Gostkowski gave Houston great field position.
The Texans wasted no time moving down the field to score again. A third-and-one play with under two minutes in the half resulted in a 17-7 Houston lead. Running back Ben Tate broke loose for a twenty yard run. Again the Patriots offense sputtered and Houston went into the break holding the Patriots offense to only seven points.