By HOWARD ULMAN
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Vince Wilfork’s biggest challenge when he lines up against the Houston Texans’ powerful offense could come before the ball is even snapped.
Will they pass or run?
The offensive line isn’t likely to give much of an indication against New England on Monday night.
“They do a real good job up front of showing you the same look on run and pass,” the Patriots defensive tackle said Thursday, “so we’re just going to have to rely on technique, good fundamentals.”
Then, once Matt Schaub hands the ball to Arian Foster or throws it to Andre Johnson, the hard work continues for the Patriots (9-3) against the Texans (11-1) in the matchup of teams with six-game winning streaks and designs on first-round playoff byes.
Foster leads the NFL with 15 touchdowns and the AFC with 1,102 yards rushing. Johnson is tied for fourth in the NFL with 1,114 yards receiving and is alone in fourth in the AFC with 74 catches.
“They’re a very well balanced team,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “If you’re stopping the run, you’re light on the play-action (passing attack). If you’re stopping the play-action, you’re probably light on the run. They do a good job of tying those plays together, complementing each other and making you defend all of it.”
Foster has rushed for more than 100 yards in six of Houston’s 12 games. He’s also the Texans’ third leading receiver with 30 catches, two of them for touchdowns.
“I had him out in the Pro Bowl a couple years ago,” Belichick said. “Impressive kid, strong, good balance. … You’ve got to be able to tackle his quickness and his athleticism, but also have to be able to tackle his size and power to run through arm tackles. He’s got a good set of skills.”
Very much like Johnson.
The 6-foot-3, 230-pound receiver is averaging 78 catches in his 10 NFL seasons since being taken with the third pick of the 2003 draft out of Miami, where he played with Wilfork, who was drafted with the 21st pick the next year.
“He has the heart of a champion,” Wilfork said. “I just remember playing with him in college. He was always quiet, but he was a fireball on the field. He gave us his all. (He’s) big, physical, strong, fast, can catch, can run. He’s well put together. He’s a specimen. He’s special.”
Schaub also can throw to tight end Owen Daniels, second on the team with 50 catches, and Kevin Walters. And he can hand the ball off to Ben Tate and Justin Forsett, who are part of the NFL’s sixth most productive running game.
“The quarterback will get the ball to the appropriate receiver based on coverage or based on read for that particular play so he’s not always targeting one guy,” Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said.
New England’s secondary was vulnerable to big plays early in the season and has allowed the fourth most yards passing in the NFL. But it has improved since Devin McCourty moved from cornerback to safety for the past six games and Aqib Talib was acquired from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and played in the last three games.
But Talib is still adjusting after being suspended four games for violating the NFL policy on performance-enhancing substances and then adjusting to a new defensive system.
“I could be a lot better,” he said. “I can just go down the list on things I can do better.”
On Monday night he might be running downfield alongside Johnson, trying to shut down one of the NFL’s best receivers. He and his defensive teammates probably won’t get much of a hint of whether the Texans will run or pass on a particular play.
“The biggest challenge is how they run and they pass, everything looks the same,” Talib said. “Linemen come off one way on the run and they come off the exact same way on the pass. So you’ve just got to just be technique-sound and have your eyes in the right spot.”