On Saturday night, the Patriots will welcome one of the NFL’s best defenses to Foxboro in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. The Houston Texans, led by star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and pass rushing phenom Whitney Mercilus boast one of the league’s toughest units. Clowney and Mercilus were dominant in the Wild Card Round against Oakland and the two have a combined 15.5 sacks including playoffs this season. The Patriots high powered attack will have to go right through the teeth of the Houston defense in order for New England to host another AFC Championship game.
While most games highlight the importance of Tom Brady, Julian Edelman or another skill position player, this matchup thrusts two other Patriots into the spotlight: Marcus Cannon and Nate Solder.
"We know this is a one shot deal & we have one opportunity to play our best ball on Saturday."
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) January 12, 2017
One of the best ways to beat the Patriots is to get pressure on Tom Brady without having to blitz, which is a formula the Texans may very well try to put into practice. Last season, the Patriots offensive line was abused against Denver and the play of Von Miller and Derek Wolfe nearly single-handedly shut down New England’s offense for most of the game. Solder was injured last season but since returning this season has returned to form as one the better, though not elite, left tackles in the league.
The real story has been the play of Cannon. Coming into this season, Cannon’s spot at right tackle appeared to be one of the biggest weaknesses on the team. The 6-foot-five-inch, 340 pound tackle was much-maligned during his first five seasons with the Patriots. Cannon was often overmatched and at times looked lost while bouncing around from guard to tackle. The Patriots coaching staff stuck with him and that has paid off immensely in 2016.
Cannon has anchored the right tackle spot previously occupied by the injured Sebastian Vollmer and the Patriots haven’t missed a beat. According to Pro Football Focus, Cannon ranks 2nd among all right tackles in terms of pass protection and Tom Brady has spent significantly less time on the turf this season than expected. The duo of Clowney and Mercilus presents the Patriots’ tackles with their toughest test of the season, especially considering that Mercilus and Clowney have increased their level of play since the two teams met in September.
Houston is facing an uphill battle to knock off the top seeded Patriots, but the task is not completely impossible. For Houston to have a chance, Clowney and Mercilus will have to have game-breaking performances. Because of this, the play of Cannon and Solder will be one of the biggest determining factors in whether or not the Patriots play in their sixth straight AFC Championship game.