Pat chance? Hit ’em hard
Getting physical likely is best shot for the Texans to pull off huge upset
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.”
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.