In a potential AFC title-game preview, Arian Foster and the Texans’ rushing attack will be under the microscope.
Texans running game vs. Patriots run defense
No team in the NFL has run the ball more this season the Texans, who are averaging 34.4 carries in 12 games. That allows for Matt Schaub to engineer one of the league’s better play-action-passing attacks, a big reason why the Texans enter Sunday with an AFC-best 11-1 record.
Running the football means a little more when playing a team like the Patriots. By rushing with success, Houston can give its defense a rest and keep Tom Brady and New England’s offense off the field.
The Patriots might struggle at times defending the pass, but they are ninth in the league defending the run. Though after allowing 100-plus rushing yards only twice in the first six games, Patriots have allowed opponents to rush for more than 100 in each of the last six games, allowing five yards per carry or more to the Bills and Colts in back-to-back weeks.
Texans RB Arian Foster, who has rushed for 1,102 yards this season, is gaining a career-low 3.9 yards per carry, but he is doing plenty to churn up yards and use clock each week to help Houston win. Foster has great vision and cutback abilities, and the Texans use the stretch run play to get him outside. Houston has run the second-most run plays off left tackle and the third-most off right tackle in the league this season.
What is surprising, though, is that the Texans are finding lots of success off right tackle, gaining 5.53 yards per carry (third-best in the league) on 60 plays. The right side of the O-line is Houston’s weakness, but Foster has been making it work, and the Texans might go in that direction often on Monday night. The Patriots are 28th in the league allowing 4.94 yards a carry off right tackle.
Assuming DE Chandler Jones returns from injury, he’ll go back to his right end spot, with Rob Ninkovich playing left end. Ninkovich has had a solid season getting after the passer and forcing turnovers, but he’ll be counted on to set the edge against Foster on Monday. Rookie SLB Dont’a Hightower is physical and will help Ninkovich support the run on that side.
The Pats will want to funnel Foster, Justin Forsett and Ben Tate to run up the middle, going against their strength, with DTs Kyle Love and Vince Wilfork and MLB Brandon Spikes being a formidable run-stopping trifecta. Wilfork is having an exceptional season and Spikes fills gaps well and lays the lumber. New England is sixth-best in the league against runs up the middle, allowing 3.3 yards per carry. Meanwhile, the Texans gain 5.01 yards per carry up the gut (ranking seventh in the NFL) — though, they run it outside more.
Another key to the Patriots’ run defense is taking the ball away. They have forced 26 fumbles, recovering a league-high 18 of them. Foster doesn’t cough it up often, though — he has only two fumbles, losing one this season. The Texans have lost only two fumbles as a team.
The Patriots’ pass defense, personnel-wise, is much better with CB Aqib Talib and a healthy Steve Gregory at safety. By bottling up the Texans’ run game, it takes pressure off the secondary and makes Houston’s play-action game less effective.
It will be a “strength vs. strength” situation in the trenches when Houston tries to run the ball against a physical, aggressive Patriots front seven. The winner of this battle is likely to leave Monday night with a big advantage heading into the AFC playoffs.
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