Pats offensive balance a challenge for Texans
FOXBOROUGH, MASS. (AP)
Stevan Ridley has emerged as a top running back in his second pro
season. He's not the only Patriots rusher Texans coach Gary Kubiak has
to worry about.
The revived New England ground game, with Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden as backups, has brought balance to an offense that relied more
heavily on quarterback Tom Brady in recent years.
Ridley, in his second pro season, is third in the AFC with 1,010 yards
rushing going into Monday night's game between the Texans (11-1), who
have the best record in the AFC and have clinched a playoff berth, and
the Patriots (9-3), who have locked up the AFC East title.
''He's a heck of a player,'' Kubiak said. ''They've had a few different
backs back there. It's what they do. It's almost like anybody they put
back there is successful. They play young guys. Tom has got them in the
right play all the time. They're not only running the ball well, but
those backs out of the backfield catch the ball extremely well.''
Vereen has rushed for just 173 yards and three touchdowns but has
scored on an 83-yard pass play. Bolden, a rookie who returns Monday
night after sitting out a four-game suspension for violating the NFL
policy on performance-enhancing substances, is second on the team with
234 yards rushing and two touchdowns.
''They're very capable of running the ball very well,'' Kubiak said.
And, of course, outstanding throwing it.
Brady is having his usual strong season with 25 touchdown passes and
just four interceptions, and wide receiver Wes Welker leads the NFL
with 92 receptions.
That pairing could be a real problem for Houston without cornerback
Brice McCain, who had surgery on his left foot on Monday. Brandon Harris, a second-year pro, will replace him despite having played in
just four games this season.
''Welker has 92 catches and I don't think Brandon has 29 plays,''
Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. ''It's a challenge,
certainly. We expect him to step up and play. We're going to try to
help him in certain areas, but it's going to be one-on-one some. It's
going to be one-on-one pass rush with our guys to put pressure on the
guy and it's going to be one-on-one for our guys to cover them
sometimes. That's just how it is.''
Balance also is a strong point for the Texans with Arian Foster, the
AFC's leading rusher with 1,102 yards, and Andre Johnson, seventh in
the NFL with 74 catches.
''He's a great player,'' Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of Johnson,
a 10-year veteran. ''He's done it for a long time. He puts up big
numbers every year and people are keying on him. They're looking for
him and he keeps producing. He's a hard guy to cover.''
And then there's Foster, the NFL leader with 15 touchdowns.
The Texans disguise their plays well and make effective use of play
action, which requires defenders to be well disciplined.
''Gary does a good job, scheme-wise, of balancing everything out - the
running game, the passing game, play-actions, dropbacks, complementary
routes, complementary runs - everything kind of ties together,''
The Patriots and the Texans are the only two offenses ranked in the top
10 in yards rushing and passing.
''If you're stopping one thing, then you're probably light on something
else and it won't take them too long to find that and exploit it,''
Belichick said. Johnson ''is definitely open on a few plays where it
wouldn't matter who the receiver is, the guy is wide open and is going
to make a big play. But there are also a lot of plays that he makes on
Fortunately for the Patriots, their weak pass defense has improved in
The acquisition of cornerback Aqib Talib, who has played the past three
games for the Patriots, from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has allowed
Belichick to start Devin McCourty at safety rather than his usual
cornerback spot, and he's solidified the secondary.
McCourty's interception in the end zone in the final minute secured the
Patriots 37-31 win over the Buffalo Bills on Nov. 11. In their next
game, cornerbacks Talib and Alfonzo Dennard returned interceptions for
touchdowns in a 59-24 rout of the Indianapolis Colts.
''They're a very physical, stout group,'' Texans quarterback Matt Schaub said. ''They understand their scheme well, a lot of veteran guys
that have played a lot of football in that group. They can rush the
passer. They can stop the run. They can do a little bit of everything.
It's a group that we really have to be on top of our game plan, on top
of our stuff and play good road football.''
The Texans have done that better than any team this season. At 6-0,
they're the only team with a perfect road record.
But the Patriots haven't lost a regular-season game in December since
Dec. 22, 2002.
''The better you play, the better your homefield advantage is because
the more the crowd is into it,'' Brady said. ''I think the mark of our
teams over the years has been we've improved as the season has gone
along. December is the last month to really improve.
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