The AFC East-leading New England Patriots travel to Texas to face the AFC South-leading Houston Texans on Sunday Night Football.
When the Texans run the ball
The Houston Texans are tied for sixth in the NFL in rushing yards (136.9 per game) and third in the league in yards per attempt (5.0). On defense, the New England Patriots are ninth against the run (98.4 yards per game).
The numbers are slightly misleading, as the Patriots had so many double-digit leads and opponents abandoned the run game early. However, in the past two weeks, the run defense–which had been gashed by Cleveland and Baltimore–was much improved against Philadelphia and Dallas.
The Texans have shored up their offensive line and are now young, athletic, and powerful up front, and are able to dominate at the line of scrimmage. Former New England offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, who still makes the play-calls on offense for Houston, will try to run Carlos Hyde (836 yards rushing and a 4.8 yards per rush average) and third-down back Duke Johnson (349 yards rushing and a career high 5.4 yards per rush average) between the tackles.
Deshaun Watson is more like Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz in that he is mobile and can hurt opponents when his protection breaks down and he extends plays or tucks the ball and runs. Houston typically employs a number of designed runs and RPOs every game, even though they potentially expose Watson to unnecessary hits.
The Texans’ game plan will be to control the ball with the running game and keep the Patriots’ defense on their heels, and stay out of the third-and-long situations that the Patriots have thrived in all season. Despite the offensive doldrums New England has been stuck in, Bill O’Brien will not underestimate Tom Brady, and will surely try to keep him on the bench as long as possible and control the time of possession.
For the Patriots, the improvement they’ve shown in the run game can be tied to linebacker Jamie Collins maintaining gap control in the past two weeks after the bye. Add in the return of Patrick Chung at strong safety, and suddenly the run defense is back to a strength.