Pat chance? Hit ’em hard

Get­ting phys­i­cal likely is best shot for the Tex­ans to pull off huge up­set

Houston Chronicle - - PRO FOOTBALL - By Aaron Wil­son aaron.wil­son@chron.com twit­ter.com/aaron­wilson_nfl

FOXBOR­OUGH, Mass. — Bernard Pol­lard launched his body with his hel­met low­ered slightly and his bulky right shoul­der wielded as a pun­ish­ing weapon.

Nick­named “Bonecrusher,” the hard-hit­ting for­mer Tex­ans safety de­liv­ered a con­cus­sive tackle for the Bal­ti­more Ravens’ swarm­ing de­fense in the fourth quar­ter of the AFC cham­pi­onship game four years ago. The hit sent New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots run­ning back Ste­van Ri­d­ley crash­ing to the ground. The foot­ball slipped out of his nor­mally iron­clad grip.

It was an ag­gres­sive, in­tim­i­dat­ing col­li­sion and forced a fum­ble that knocked Ri­d­ley out tem­po­rar­ily and sent a mes­sage about in­ten­sity dur­ing the fourth quar­ter of a 28-13 win that pro­pelled the Ravens to an even­tual Su­per Bowl cham­pi­onship as they pulled off a rar­ity: a road vic­tory over the Pa­tri­ots in the play­offs at Gil­lette Sta­dium.

The rough­neck man­ner in which the Ravens top­pled the Pa­tri­ots could pro­vide some­thing of an in­struc­tional blue­print for how to beat a tal­ented op­po­nent with few no­tice­able flaws and ar­guably the top head coach-quar­ter­back tan­dem in NFL his­tory in Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.

“One thing I re­mem­ber go­ing into that game was Ray Lewis say­ing, ‘We have to out­hit them ev­ery sin­gle time,’ ” re­called Buf­falo Bills vet­eran safety James Ihedigbo, a Hous­ton res­i­dent and for­mer Pa­tri­ots and Ravens starter who played in that AFC cham­pi­onship game for Bal­ti­more. “That hit on Ri­d­ley by Bernard changed the whole tempo of the game. Af­ter that, no one wanted to catch the ball and the Pa­tri­ots had their heads on a swivel.”

‘Hit them in the mouth’

The Pa­tri­ots are 18-4 in the post­sea­son at home all-time. They’ve only lost three play­off games at home since the 2010 sea­son dur­ing which they were throt­tled again by the Ravens, 3314, in the wild-card round along with a 28-21 di­vi­sional-round loss the fol­low­ing year to a brash New York Jets squad led by out­spo­ken line­backer Bart Scott.

As the fifth-seeded Tex­ans, a pro­nounced un­der­dog as Las Ve­gas sports books have in­stalled the Pa­tri­ots as a com­mand­ing 16-point fa­vorite for Satur­day night’s AFC di­vi­sional-round play­off game at Gil­lette Sta­dium, seek to pull off an up­set, his­tory sug­gests an ul­tra-tough ap­proach cre­ates a path­way to ad­vanc­ing to the AFC cham­pi­onship game and be­ing one step away from an un­prece­dented home Su­per Bowl game at NRG Sta­dium.

“You’ve got to hit the Pa­tri­ots in the mouth,” said for­mer Tex­ans Pro Bowl full­back Vonta Leach, the rugged lead blocker for the Ravens dur­ing the 2013 AFC cham­pi­onship game. “A big hit could be a tone-set­ter. You’ve got to be phys­i­cal on both sides of the ball.

“You’ve got to get af­ter Tom Brady. You’ve got to run the ball. You’ve got to play mis­take-free foot­ball. You can’t beat your­selves. You do all of those things and I think you can beat them. It’s been proven it can hap­pen.”

How can the 10-7 Tex­ans de­feat the 14-2 Pa­tri­ots?

It starts with dis­rupt­ing the im­pec­ca­ble tim­ing and poise of Brady, a four-time Su­per Bowl cham­pion, three-time Su­per Bowl Most Valu­able Player, twotime league MVP and a 12-time Pro Bowl se­lec­tion.

Brady has as­saulted de­fenses with a vengeance since en­dur­ing the an­noy­ance and em­bar­rass­ment of serv­ing a four-game sus­pen­sion for the De­flate­gate scan­dal. He has com­pleted 67.5 per­cent of his throws in a dozen starts for 3,554 yards, 28 touch­downs, two in­ter­cep­tions and a 112.2 passer rat­ing.

Against the Ravens in 2013, a clearly flus­tered Brady com­pleted just 29 of 54 passes for 320 yards, one touch­down and two in­ter­cep­tions for an un­char­ac­ter­is­tic 62.3 passer rat­ing. He was out­played by Ravens quar­ter­back Joe Flacco, who com­pleted 21 of 36 passes for 240 yards, three touch­downs and zero in­ter­cep­tions.

“I know (Tex­ans line­backer) Brian Cush­ing as a friend and train­ing with him and he knows if they dom­i­nate and com­mand the line of scrim­mage along with Jade­veon Clowney and Whit­ney Mer­cilus, that could be the de­cid­ing fac­tor,” Ihedigbo said. “The Tex­ans’ front seven is the key. They can’t let Tom Brady get go­ing. If you can rush Brady with four guys and play tight cov­er­age, that’s your best op­por­tu­nity to win. His­tor­i­cally, the teams that

beat the Pa­tri­ots like Bal­ti­more or the Gi­ants have been able to hit him with­out blitz­ing a lot.”

Re­move com­fort zone

Ear­lier this sea­son in a 31-24 loss to the Seat­tle Sea­hawks that marks the lone 2016 de­feat for the Pa­tri­ots in a game that Brady started, Brady wasn’t nearly as sharp as Seat­tle quar­ter­back Rus­sell Wil­son.

Brady com­pleted 23 of 32 passes for 316 yards but had no touch­downs, was in­ter­cepted once and had a 90.1 passer rat­ing. Mean­while, Wil­son com­pleted 25 of 37 passes for 348 yards, three touch­downs and no in­ter­cep­tions for a 124.6 passer rat­ing.

“You can’t let Tom Brady feel com­fort­able back there,” Leach said. “You not only have to get sacks, but you have to hit Tom Brady. The de­fen­sive line has to make Tom Brady feel their pres­sure. The front seven has to play good ball.”

The Tex­ans can ill af­ford the pair of fum­bles on spe­cial teams they ex­pe­ri­enced in the first meet­ing with the Pa­tri­ots this sea­son as turnovers by Tyler Ervin and Charles James led to touch­downs.

If Tex­ans quar­ter­back Brock Osweiler is go­ing to some­how out­duel Brady on the heels of a 27-0 loss in Septem­ber in which he was in­ter­cepted by since traded Pa­tri­ots line­backer Jamie Collins and strug­gled to ad­vance the foot­ball past mid­field un­til late in the game, Osweiler has to main­tain his re­cent trend of tak­ing bet­ter care of the foot­ball. Osweiler un­corked 16 in­ter­cep­tions dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son,

but has turned in con­sec­u­tive turnover-free per­for­mances since re­gain­ing his start­ing job and is now play­ing in a more free-wheel­ing, con­fi­dent man­ner.

“There are some things that cor­re­late,” said Osweiler, who de­feated the Pa­tri­ots in a reg­u­lar-sea­son start while play­ing for the Den­ver Bron­cos last sea­son. “It goes back to pro­tect­ing the foot­ball. It goes back to the same recipe. You can’t turn the ball over. You need to play smart. They are go­ing to play a lot of zone, but when they play man you need to con­nect on your down­field shots.”

For the Tex­ans to suc­ceed of­fen­sively, they’ll need to es­tab­lish the run with run­ning back La­mar Miller.

Miller rushed for 1,073 yards and five touch­downs dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son. He’s ac­cus­tomed to com­pet­ing with the Pa­tri­ots. The for­mer Mi­ami Dol­phins starter will face them for the 10th time on and has rushed for 424 ca­reer yards against the Pa­tri­ots.

The Pa­tri­ots are stout against the run, led by line­backer Dont’a Hightower and tied for third in the NFL.

“You have to be ag­gres­sive,” Miller said. “They have a good run de­fense. We have to do a great job of just be­ing phys­i­cal, do­ing a great job get­ting first downs, try to put our­selves in man­age­able third downs to keep the chains mov­ing.”

On the other side of the foot­ball, the Tex­ans’ de­fense needs to bot­tle up power run­ning back LeGar­rette Blount. The 6-foot, 250-pounder rushed for 1,161 yards and 18 touch­downs this sea­son.

“I think the big key is mak­ing sure that we do a good job of set­ting the edge and build a wall,” Tex­ans coach Bill O’Brien said. “When you let a big back like that get through the first line of de­fense, it’s kind of like the train rolling down the tracks. You’re go­ing to have a hard time tack­ling the guy.

“He doesn’t go down with the first con­tact very of­ten. You have to square him up. You have to wrap him up. He’ll be a big chal­lenge.”

Fast start es­sen­tial

The Tex­ans need to get off to a faster start than usual. They were outscored 54-47 in the first quar­ter and 118-74 in the se­cond quar­ter this sea­son.

“Be­ing ag­gres­sive is big, very in­stru­men­tal in try­ing to de­feat this team,” Tex­ans of­fen­sive tackle Duane Brown said. “Start­ing fast, set­ting the tone. You don’t want to come out and kind of feel your way through it or over­think things be­cause then you start to play a lit­tle hes­i­tant. That’s when they take ad­van­tage of you.”

Get­ting Tex­ans star wide re­ceiver DeAn­dre Hop­kins in­volved is a chal­lenge. The Pa­tri­ots’ cov­er­age scheme in­volves hav­ing cor­ner­back Lo­gan Ryan fol­low Hop­kins around with safety Devin McCourty pro­vid­ing dou­ble-team at­ten­tion.

That means tight ends C.J. Fiedorow­icz and Ryan Grif­fin will need to step up as big down­field tar­gets.

“Fiedorow­icz has to have a big game,” Ihedigbo said. “He’s done a good job all year. He has to take that to the next level and come alive in the play­offs. That’s when guys earn their money. You know they will dou­ble Hop, so the tight end has to win his matchups. The Tex­ans are go­ing to have to do what the Pa­tri­ots do: con­trol the foot­ball, run the ball, stay in big per­son­nel, go hat on a hat and change the line of scrim­mage to win this game or at least make it close.

“If you have quick, easy passes for Brock and run the foot­ball, that’s your only chance. You can’t do stupid stuff like not punt the ball when you’re sup­posed to. They can’t make mis­takes. They can’t give Brady short fields. They can’t miss field goals. They need to play close to per­fect to win this game.”

Bob Levey / Getty Im­ages

The Tex­ans’ de­fense has had some suc­cess against Tom Brady in the past, in­clud­ing Jade­veon Clowney sack­ing him in the third quar­ter in 2015 at NRG Sta­dium.

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