Patriots Offensive Line Faces Toughest Challenge vs. Texans, 49ers Defenses
Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports
After allowing just 15 sacks in 11 games, the dam ruptured under the Miami pass rush.
New England’s offensive line dropped from second in sacks allowed to fifth, with 19. It’s still a great ranking, but how much will it change over the next two weeks?
First arriving at Gillette Stadium are the Houston Texans, with 39 sacks. Six days later, San Francisco makes the cross-country trip with its second-ranked defense in tow.
Both teams have outstanding talent. Houston is headlined by J.J. Watt, a Defensive Player of the Year and league MVP candidate for leading the Texans in tackles with 60 and sacks with 16.5. Watt is doing this while playing defensive end in a 3-4 defense. What he is doing as a 3-4 lineman is practically unheard of.
Next up, in less than a week, will be the NFL leader in sacks, 49ers OLB Aldon Smith. In just his second year, Smith already has 31.5 career sacks, 17.5 this season. Joining Aldon in tearing O-lines apart is Justin Smith, a versatile force against the run and pass.
Behind the two Smiths is the best ILB tandem in Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman. They’ve combined for 201 tackles.
And as treacherous as passing the ball is, Houston (second overall) and San Francisco (third) are stout against the run.
As daunting as these defenses are, neither is impenetrable.
Injuries have chipped away at Houston’s defense. The biggest loss is LB Brian Cushing, who is out for the year with a torn ACL. LB Brooks Reed is out, though CB Jonathan Joseph, LB Bradie James and DE Antonio Smith are probable.
In total, 13 defenders appeared on Saturday’s injury report.
The mounting injuries took an effect. In consecutive weeks, Houston allowed 458 total yards to Jacksonville, 525 to Detroit and 398 to Tennessee. The Texans secondary was minced in that span, giving up 354 passing yards to Jaguars backup quarterback Chad Henne, 419 yards to the Lions’ Matthew Stafford and 309 to the Titans’ Jake Locker.
If the offensive line can open holes for the running game against the 49ers, it might give the Patriots their best chance at beating San Francisco. In the four games opponents gained more than 100 yards, the 49ers are 1-2-1.
And while Houston and San Francisco have two of the league’s best sack artists, New England repeatedly contained the pass-rushers it faced this season. Buffalo’s Mark Anderson and Mario Williams combined for zero sacks in two games; Indianapolis’ Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis were also shut out; St. Louis’ Chris Long and Robert Quinn were served goose eggs. Seattle’s Chris Clemons had the Seahawks' lone sack.
The last time the offensive line allowed four sacks was to Denver in Week 5. In the six games between the Denver and Miami games, the offensive line allowed just three sacks.
The offensive line would stand a better chance if healthy. Vollmer, Dan Connolly, Logan Mankins and Nick McDonald are all listed as questionable. If any one of these linemen is unavailable, it puts a bull’s eye on reserves Donald Thomas and Marcus Cannon.
It could also mean tackles Kyle Hix or Markus Zusevics, neither with any pro experience, will be forced into action.
New England won’t face a tougher pair of defenses all season. The offense was rolling until Miami posed problems for the Patriots offensive line. The O-line must win the battle in the trenches for the offense to be prolific again. To do it against Houston and San Francisco won’t be easy.
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