HOUSTON — The first time Houston faced the Patriots, top cornerback Johnathan Joseph played while still struggling to get healthy, and outside linebacker Brooks Reed sat out with an injury.
That game turned into an embarrassing 42-14 loss to New England. Now both are back to full strength, and the Texans believe that makes their defense much stronger this time around.
“Right now, I can probably say this is the best I’ve felt all year,” Joseph said.
He was slowed by a hamstring injury that kept him out the two games before the first matchup against the Patriots.
“Obviously, back then I was good enough to play but I wasn’t at my best,” he said. “Right now I can say I’m 100 percent.”
Joseph, who often shadows the opponent’s best receiver, knows that he and the rest of the secondary will have their hands full. Not only must they deal with New England’s wide receivers, but also its tight end duo of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski didn’t play in the first game against Houston.
“They can place the ball on his back side or throw it up top and those guys both have great hands where they can make the difficult catch in traffic,” Joseph said. “For us, it will be a task, but I think that we have the guys here that are up for the challenge. It’s just about making plays.”
Reed, a second-year player, started 12 games in the regular season. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips called him a “physical force.”
“He’s obviously a good player, but I think just his physicality really helps us as far as our mental toughness overall as a defensive unit,” Phillips said.
A frustrated Reed had to watch the team struggle against the Patriots and not be able to help out.
“Now, it’s a little bit different,” he said. “So I’ll be out there and try to make plays of my own.”
Reed had a sack last week against the Bengals; he now has at least one in each the three postseason games in Texans history. His best playoff performance came last season against the Ravens when he had 2½ sacks.
Joseph appreciates Reed’s versatility.
“He can play the run and the pass, so he’s a two-sided guy,” Joseph said. “I think he had just experience from last year coming in ... so just having Brooks back and those guys rotating and whatever they’re doing up front, I think it just helps those guys from a health standpoint and just being fresh all the time.”
Houston is hoping to build on last week’s dominant defensive performance in its 19-13 wild-card win over the Bengals. The Texans limited them to 198 yards, which was the lowest yardage total in the first round of the playoffs, and only 53 before halftime.
They also cleaned up their problems on third down, not allowing Cincinnati to convert any of its nine third-down chances.
This week the Texans know they must get pressure on Tom Brady and make him uncomfortable in the pocket. They’ll look to defensive star J.J. Watt to lead that charge. Watt led the NFL with a franchise-record 20½ sacks in the regular season. He also had 107 tackles, including 39 for losses, 16 passes defended and forced four fumbles.
In Watt’s rookie season, the Texans lost to the Ravens in the divisional round.
“We were happy to make it as far as we did, but this year, new year, new goals,” he said. “Biggest goal of them all, Super Bowl, and this is a big step for us, and we’re really excited about the challenge.”
Phillips, who began coaching in the NFL in 1976, believes Watt is clearly the best defensive player in the NFL this season.
“He had the best season ever,” Phillips said. “I mean, nobody has had a season like that. Nobody has made that many tackles, that many sacks, that many pass breakups and that many tackles for loss or tackles for no gain in the history of football. Nobody has had a year like that. It’s the best I’ve ever seen, sure.”
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