By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Much like the Patriots insist on doing at practice, Jimmy Garoppolo’s status for Thursday night against the Houston Texans keeps getting better every day. But as the quarterback continues to nurse a sprained AC joint in his throwing shoulder, the possibility of Jacoby Brissett making his first career start continues to grow as the Patriots’ short week rapidly winds down.
This means that the Patriots would likely have to go with a dumbed-down, run-heavy offense once again, after doing so against the Dolphins on Sunday after Brissett came in to relieve the injured Garoppolo. Facing the Texans’ stout defensive front with a banged-up offensive line is no easy task for any running back, but is LeGarrette Blount up for the challenge?
The good news is, based on how the Texans have defended the run so far this season, there could be plays to be made. Through two games, Houston has allowed 4.92 yards per carry, which ranks 29th in the NFL. They looked worse in Week 2 against Kansas City than they did to open the season against the Chicago Bears. Looking at a few key plays, it’s clear that the Patriots could have a chance to replicate Kansas City’s success on the ground.
Without workhorse Jamaal Charles, the Chiefs ran for 119 yards on 19 carries, a 6.26 average. Backup Charcandrick West broke off one of the biggest plays of the game (in terms of yardage) near the end of the first half as he ripped up the middle for 28 yards on a draw play, which will look very familiar to Patriots fans.
It’s important to note here that the play was a good situation to run the ball, since the Texans didn’t have Vince Wilfork manning the middle of the defensive line and had gaping holes at the point of attack with their four down linemen spread out. It’s likely that Josh McDaniels would recognize this and do something similar with Blount or James White.
The other key to West’s 28-yard run was that there was great blocking everywhere. Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus got tied up long enough against the Chiefs’ left tackle and left guard, while linebacker John Simon, who was in the best position to make a play on West, got spun out of his cleats on a block. Even tight end Travis Kelce went in motion and threw a block on safety A.J. Bouye to really open up the lane for West. Most importantly, J.J. Watt looks slower and weaker than usual as he continues to recover from offseason back surgery; he was blocked handily on West’s big run.
The big difference between this game and Patriots-Texans is the offensive line. The Chiefs boast one of the league’s best tackle duos in left tackle Eric Fisher and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz (who, by the way, was a free agent in the offseason), a stark difference from the Patriots with Marcus Cannon manning the right tackle spot. The interiors of each team’s offensive line, however, are comparable, which could bode well for the Patriots’ ability to make effective between-the-tackles run plays.
Bill Belichick knows as well as anyone in the NFL that no running back can perform up to his capabilities without a good line and strong blocking in front of him. When asked about Blount’s early-season success on the ground, especially compared to last season, he offered this explanation:
“The big thing that’s contributed to it is that he has had some space to run. There were a lot of plays, too many plays last year where it didn’t matter who the back was, we just couldn’t get him started, couldn’t get him into any kind of space, couldn’t let the back build up any kind of momentum. I think all our backs have the ability to make yards. They’ve all been productive. We’ve seen it in preseason, we’ve seen it through the years with some of these guys, depending on which guy you want to talk about, but we had to give him a chance. You’ve got to give them a chance to have some type of opportunity to operate with some space or momentum, just something. No back can gain yardage when there’s just no place to run. I don’t care how good the guy is.”
It’s well-documented how much Blount needs to build up momentum as he gets to the line, which also makes him a totally different back from anyone on Kansas City. It’s when he gets through that first level that he really gets dangerous. But he will have a lot of strength and talent to get through up front, especially if the Texans key in on stopping him.
Blount will run hard (and probably hurdle a guy or two) regardless of how the line plays in front of him, but he will need similar blocking to what Kansas City did to have a chance at controlling the game on the ground. If Brissett is under center and handing off 30-plus times, blocking will be mandatory.
Houston gave Kansas City room to run last week and could do the same in Foxboro on Thursday. The Patriots will have a good chance of winning if they can control the ground game, but it will also come down to the line giving him the space he needs.
Are the Patriots up to the task? With Belichick at the helm and the game taking place on a Thursday, anything is possible.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. His opinions do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.