Tag Archives: Jadeveon Clowney

Patriots  Week 1 Report Card, New England Downs Texans 27-20

Steve Balestrieri
September 11, 2018 at 7:30 am ET

The Patriots took care of business at home against the Texans and they came away with the 27-20 victory that wasn’t really as close as the score would indicate. There was never the feeling that the Texans could take over and win this game and the muffed punt at the end, while it made it a one-score game, didn’t really change the momentum.

It was a good win, with plenty of positives and also plenty of negatives for the coaches to clean up before they travel to Jacksonville next week. With the NFL showing a ton of sloppy play across the board in Week 1, we’ve become accustomed to most of the teams playing below par since most of the players barely see the field during preseason. So, with that in mind, the coaches will take the victory and move on.

Overall the Patriots looked pretty good and were the better team throughout the game. The combination of Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski seems to have not missed a beat and perhaps those missing OTAs sessions weren’t a big a negative as we were told to believe. There is a reason to feel much better about the pass rush this season, although the Houston OL is a bit suspect again. And the OL’s performance can only be described as a ton better than when the two teams met last year.

There were issues with the run defense, turnovers and special teams coverages on the minus side. So, with the season opener in the books, we’ll start with the offense and the players can come forward to pick up their grade sheets.

Quarterback: B+

Tom Brady wasn’t at his very best, as he was quick to point out after the game on Sunday but he was pretty damned good. There was absolutely no rust factor involved with the offense under #12 and he was his normal cool, brutally efficient leader.

All summer we heard the same mantra we’ve heard for what now? Eight to ten years? They have no weapons…the offense will struggle…yada, yada. Brady eats that like M&Ms, (although he probably eschews chocolate). He threw a nice back shoulder throw to Gronkowski for the Patriots first touchdown where the big man then muscled his way into the end zone.

He also had touchdown passes to James White and Phillip Dorsett, who was the 69th player (Gronk approves this message) to catch a touchdown pass from Brady. And his best pass of the day was arguably the one in the fourth quarter when facing a third and long. Brady bought time, slid in the pocket and found his fourth option, FB James Develin for a key first down. He finished 26-39 for 277 yards with 3 TDs and 1 INT.

Running Backs: B

The Patriots went with Rex Burkhead and James White mainly early in the game and then brought in Jeremy Hill later. Both Burkhead, who got the majority of the work in the running game and White were their normal solid performers on the field.

Hill came on and got just a few carries but appeared quick in the running game before going down with what appeared to be a nasty injury. That hit may require the Patriots to make a roster move if he’s out for an extended period, which it appears initially to be. **Update** Hill has torn his ACL and is done for the year**

James Develin provided his always solid game in the running game as a lead blocker but also chipped in with four catches for 22 yards. Develin had six catches all season in 2017 and nearly equaled that on Sunday. That’s nice stepping up. But overall, the running game went for 122 yards on 31 carries which isn’t bad at all.

Wide Receivers: C

The wide receivers entered the game pretty thin with just four on the roster, minus STer Matthew Slater. While their numbers weren’t earth shattering they performed okay for the first game of the season but in the future, they’ll have to step it up.

The bright spot was Phillip Dorsett who had just 12 catches all of last year. He had seven catches for 66 yards and a touchdown. On the final drive before the first half, Dorsett caught the last three passes Brady threw, including the four-yard touchdown. Cordarrelle Patterson had four touches including three carries and one reception.

Chris Hogan’s day was a disappointment. He was targeted five times and had just one catch for 11 yards. Riley McCarron was targeted once and had no stats but he would figure prominently in special teams (more below). The third down conversion rate wasn’t good and it is the WRs who must step up and change that.

Tight Ends: A

Rob Gronkowski is the best, most complete tight end in the NFL and it isn’t even close. The Texans decided that they were going to take him away with an athletic linebacker and a safety. It didn’t work. Gronkowski was the most dominant player on the field on Sunday.

He caught seven passes for 123 yards and a score, despite being the guy they tried to shut down. His 22-yard touchdown was a classic Gronkowski double coverage, back shoulder throw to Brady where he muscled his way in the end zone. At the end of the half, he split two defenders on a deep seam route where he made a fantastic catch despite a defender clearly pulling on his arm.

But Gronk is a force multiplier, he is a great decoy as well. On James White’s touchdown he lined up in the slot on the right and cut left and took all of the defenders with him, White was left with a huge hole in the defense to work in. Dorsett’s touchdown was similar. The guy continues to be unstoppable.

Offensive Line: A-

The offensive line was thought to be a question mark by some even though they had four of five starters returning. They were facing one of the best front sevens in the NFL and one that has a plethora of pass rushers. And for much of the day, Tom Brady could stand flat-footed in the pocket and go thru his progressions.

Trent Brown did a tremendous job on Jadeveon Clowney all game long and the talented pass rusher was invisible for most of the game. He and Whitney Mercilus were relegated to a milk carton in the game. Marcus Cannon did a tremendous job on J.J. Watt who did get a couple of hits on Brady when LaAdrian Waddle came on the second half. The Texans did get a couple of sacks from the interior of the line late in the game.

The only picky thing we can find is that the run blocking was just okay but not great. The team averaged just 3.9 yards per carry, again okay but not where they want to be. However, they did rush for 122 yards on that front seven, so we’re not going to harp on that at all.  

Defensive Line: B

It was a mixed bag for the defensive line on Sunday. They were outstanding at getting after the quarterback and (this time), containing him in the pocket. Trey Flowers had a tremendous game, he’s always an under-the-radar guy. Flowers logged 1.5 sacks, two tackles for loss and three QB hits. Deatrich Wise, in a limited role, due to the rotation, had 1.5 sacks, 1.5 tackles for a loss, and three QB hits. All in just 22 snaps

Unlike a year ago, the Patriots were for the majority of the afternoon, able to keep Deshaun Watson in the pocket and stop him from gaining the edge and making plays with his feet. The rotation of DEs was working and they kept fresh legs out there with Adrian Clayborn and newcomer Keionta Davis playing well too.

Lawrence Guy is the most underrated player on the Patriots. Guy had a great game and provided solid run support as well as pushed the pocket. He forced Watson’s throw that was picked off by Gilmore.

The run defense overall was not good, the Texans were running at Malcom Brown and Adam Butler and that will have to be tightened up. In the second half, however, it looked like the team was going to a smaller box and playing more two deep safeties, but we’ll have to rewatch the tape and see if some of the issues were by design.

Linebackers: B

Kyle Van Noy, rookie Ja’Whaun Bentley, and Dont’a Hightower played the most snaps. Bentley was really good for the most part and moves all over the field pretty well for a big man. He was out of position, however, on the 31-yard run by Lamar Miller in the first half. Elandon Roberts came on in the second half and had one really bad series, where Alfred Blue and the Texans gashed them on the ground. Roberts has a penchant for filling the wrong gaps at times and that series was not good.

But in covering the backs and tight ends, the linebackers had a very good game. The running backs had just two catches and TE Ryan Griffin was shut out. It was a pretty good start to the season, while they have a lot of room for improvement, it was light years better than the start to 2017.

Secondary: A

Stephon Gilmore continued the outstanding play that he’s demonstrated since the midway point of last year. He had a strong spring and summer and he was matched up with one of the best WRs in the game with DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins had his catches, he ended up with eight for 78 yards but he wasn’t a difference maker in the game. The Texans were trying everything in their power to get him the ball but Gilmore blanketed him all game.

His interception was a phenomenal play. Gilmore ran from the other side of the field when he saw Eric Rowe in single coverage and covered a tremendous amount of field with the ball in the air and went up, high pointed the ball and snagged the interception out of the hands of Rowe.

Rowe had a pretty solid game as well, while Ellington had just four catches for 37 yards. The safeties did a very good job of communication (the opposite of 2017) and the bunch formations that gave the team fits in 2017 didn’t phase them this time around.

Special Teams: C-

The normally solid Patriots special teams coverage units laid a clunker against the Texans who were one of the worst STs units in the league last year. Houston averaged 31.2 yards per kickoff return, not what I would consider anywhere near the Patriots par. But it was the first game of the season and the team did lose a couple of their core special teamers in Brandon Bolden and Jordan Richards while Jacob Hollister missed the game due to injury.

Riley McCarron muffed a punt which allowed Houston to score on a short field to cut the score to a touchdown late in the game, but it was also his first NFL game. He’ll hear it from the coaches this week.

On the plus side, Stephen Gostkowski was perfect on three PATs and both FG attempts. And Ryan Allen had six punts for a 46.8-yard average. Included in that was his last-minute punt that went 55 yards and was downed on the one-yard line.

Coaches: A

Bill Belichick had the team ready to go this season. The Texans tried to replicate their game from last year where they bunched their formations and got the Patriots secondary confused but this time, it didn’t work. The defense was well prepared for it plus the movement of Watson in the pocket.

Dante Scarnecchia had the OL extremely well prepared to face the Texans pass rush and stout front seven. The offense knew they were thin at WR but they worked up a game plan that got everyone involved. Josh McDaniels was still able to find ways to attack the secondary and the Patriots were still balanced in the running and passing games.

Brian Flores and the defense earn high marks of the week. The Patriots defense looked much, much better this week than they did at this time last year. Overall, very high marks for the coaching staff, but an even tougher test awaits this week.

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Patriots Down Texans 27-20 In Season Opener

Steve Balestrieri
September 10, 2018 at 9:01 am ET

Brady, Offensive Line Shine In Win

The New England Patriots opened the 2018 regular season with a 27- 20 win over the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro on a cool, cloudy Sunday. While the game was anything but perfect, the Patriots were in control of this one from start to finish and despite a late score, one never had the feeling that the Texans could win this one.

Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski silenced the hand-wringing crowd, for a week anyway, as the two showed no signs of rust and had a tremendous chemistry going despite missing the spring workouts.

Brady appeared sharp completing 26-39 passes for 277 yards with 3 touchdowns and one interception. That one was tipped at the line and intercepted by Tyrann Mathieu. Gronkowski was his normally uncoverable self, the Texans couldn’t cover him with two smaller safeties, they tried to double him with linebacker Zach Cunningham as well. But he looked in midseason form catching seven passes for 123 yards and a score.

Brady, of course, was never satisfied with his own performance and stated he, and the team can do much better.

“I don’t think we played anywhere near where our capabilities are,” he said. “All of us probably look at the game and realize we could have done things better.”

Texans QB Deshaun Watson was the one who looked rusty and it shouldn’t come as a surprise since he missed the last seven games of the 2017 and barely played in the preseason. While the national media proclaimed he was about to re-torch the Patriots like he did a year ago, he hardly resembled that player from a year ago.

Unlike 2017, the Patriots had Watson under pressure all day, and the pass rush and his own rust had him off-target and off of his timing all game long. Watson finished with pedestrian numbers 17-35 for 176 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

Tremendous credit has to go to Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. Despite having four of five starters return this season, much was made of the “uncertainty” of the OL protecting Brady heading into this season. Especially facing a great test against a tremendous front seven of Houston. Having pass-rushers J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, and Whitney Mercilus, the Texans sacked Brady five times a year ago and hit him constantly, but that threat never materialized today.

Newcomer Trent Brown relegated Clowney to MIA status all day, and Marcus Cannon handled Watt extremely well in the first half, and while Watt made some noise late against LaAdrian Waddle, he was pretty much a non-factor as well as Mercilus.

The Pats were cruising until late in the game when Houston punted and Riley McCarron muffed the catch, having the ball bounce off of his face mask giving the Texans the ball deep in Patriots territory where they scored to make it a one-score game. After forcing the Patriots to punt late, Ryan Allen ended any hopes for a miracle comeback by perfectly dropping a 54-yard punt inside the five-yard line where Jonathan Jones downed it at the one.

The coaches will want to clean up the turnovers, they had three in the game, the Brady tipped interception, the McCarron muff and a Gronkowski fumble after he caught a deep pass down the seam.

The team moves on to face the Jacksonville Jaguars next Sunday in Jacksonville. Game time is slated for 4:25 p.m. We’ll have to watch the weather reports for the hurricane that is aiming for northern FL, SC, and GA this week as it could impact the game depending on when it hits and where.

Here are our Players Up and Down for the Game:

UP-

Tom Brady: No brainer, the GOAT silenced the critics by being his normally cool, efficient self. He spread the ball around to eight different receivers and was in control all game long.

Rob Gronkowski: The Texans had no answer for the big man who made a tremendous catch deep down the seam while in triple coverage to set up a patented Patriots score just before halftime. Afterward he joked that he didn’t know what Tom was thinking, throwing him the ball with all of those players all around him….midseason form.

Phillip Dorsett: Dorsett spent all of last season with the Patriots and managed only 12 catches. He got off to a much better start this year as he hauled in seven passes for 66 yards and a score including the final three passes on the Patriots scoring drive at the end of the first half. He is off to good start in 2018.

Patriots Pass Rush: The Achilles heel of the defense a year ago, the Patriots pass rush was much improved Sunday. They put pressure on Watson all game long and did a much better job of setting the edge. Deatrich Wise and Trey Flowers each had 1.5 sacks but more important, the pass rush was consistent all game long.

Honorable Mentions- James White, Rex Burkhead, James Develin, Stephon Gilmore

Down-

Patriots Run Defense: While some of it was scheme related, they played much of the game with two deep safeties and therefore had a smaller box, they were gashed inside particularly on Malcom Brown and Adam Butler’s side. We’ll have to take another look at the game All-22 film but this will be an area that the coaches will want to work on. Lamar Miller had 98 yards on the ground forthe Texans.

Riley McCarron: His muffed punt was inexcusable, especially at that time of the game which could have turned the game around. But to his credit, he faced the music after the game and took all of the blame himself.

Jeremy Hill: Hill took a nasty hit by James Develin after Gronkowski fumbled in the second half. Watching the play on replay was painful as it seemed that his injury was severe. We’ll have to watch the report, but it seems like he could be done for the year.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

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Players To Watch Patriots Take on the Texans in Regular Season Opener

Steve Balestrieri
September 7, 2018 at 8:07 am ET

Familiar Faces, Familiar Opponents Face Each Other Again

The New England Patriots open the 2018 regular season against the Houston Texans on Sunday afternoon and the conditions are supposed to be nearly perfect. The blistering heat wave that rolled thru the East Coast is moving off and it is supposed to be replaced by much cooler, drier air which brings a fall feel to the game.

The Patriots and Texans have faced each other often in recent years and very familiar with one another. In 2017, the two teams shared joint practices together before playing a preseason game and then met again in Week 3 of the regular season. Now they’ll renew the competition as each team has sights set for the postseason.

Although the Texans have never won in Foxboro, they are a team that gets great respect from the Pats. If you’ve ever attended a training camp session and watch those coaching assistants wave those big tennis rackets around when Tom Brady throws in drills? That is the J.J. Watt effect, because the uber-talented, but lately oft-injured defensive lineman has a penchant for knocking down passes at the line.

So, from a Patriots perspective, here are our Players to Watch on Sunday:

Tom Brady:

The Pats quarterback is entering his 19th season in the NFL and despite being 41 years old, looks as good as ever, winning the MVP of the league at 40 and then throwing for 505 yards against a very good Eagles defense in the Super Bowl.

Brady lost trusted targets in Danny Amendola and Brandin Cooks this offseason and then skipped the OTAs to spend more time with his family. Now with a wide receiver core that is thinner than what they’re used to working with, until Julian Edelman returns, all eyes will be on Brady to see if he can continue to keep the offense clicking.

Houston has a formidable pass rush and sacked Brady five times last year, with a new left tackle (Trent Brown) and a right tackle just getting off an injury (Marcus Cannon), the Texans will be looking to disrupt things and Brady will have to be sharp, move the ball around to multiple targets and get it out quickly. Brady takes a lot of the pressure off of his tackles by getting rid of the ball very quickly and this season begins with a big test to see if the rust is gone from a long offseason.

Phillip Dorsett:

Dorsett was brought over from the Colts last year and was pretty much an afterthought in the offense for most of the year. With Amendola and Cooks gone, Edelman suspended for the first month, and Kenny Britt, Malcolm Mitchell and Jordan Matthews released, the onus of much of the wide receiver production is being pushed on his plate.

Dorsett began the summer hot and was looking like he was ready for the challenge, but as camp wore on, he faded a bit and wasn’t a big factor in the first two preseason games. That changed in the third game as he and Brady seemed to be working on their timing and chemistry against the Eagles.

Now the games are for real and a lot of eyes will be following Dorsett as the tries to be the go-to guy and a reliable chain mover for the Patriots offense along with Chris Hogan and the newcomer Cordarrelle Patterson.

Dont’a Hightower:

The Patriots big middle linebacker is back and looks healthy after missing most of last season. While Hightower isn’t an All-Pro, he is for this Patriots defense and his absence in the Super Bowl had more to do with them losing than Malcolm Butler’s absence did.

Hightower will have to control the running game inside and help out when Lamar Miller or Alfred Blue try to stretch them to the edge or head out in the passing game. With the scrambling ability of Deshaun Watson, the Patriot defenders on the edge will have to contain the mobile QB and keep him in the pocket. If he tries to run up the middle, Hightower will be tasked with minimizing the damage.

Having the big, physical Hightower back in the middle of the field is a huge boost for a Patriots defense that was woeful against the run in 2017. Everything with a Bill Belichick defense begins in the middle. Having Hightower back where he belongs is a big first step.

Eric Rowe:

The Patriots corner behind Stephon Gilmore has taken an undeserved bad rap from Patriots fans and will get a chance this season to erase a lot of those. With Malcolm Butler now in Tennessee, Rowe gets elevated to the top two slot. And despite the perception, he’s ready for the challenge.

The bigger, taller  (6’1, 205) Rowe who is beginning his fourth season has earned the right to be the starter. He had a very good spring and summer and fended off all competition from veterans and rookies alike to earn his way into the starters role.

This week he faces Will Fuller of the Texans who will play opposite DeAndre Hopkins and whose responsibilities fall to Gilmore. But an interesting footnote on Fuller, who is recovering from a hamstring issue and may not be 100 percent. Fuller and Watson developed a great chemistry last season. With both Hopkins and Fuller in the lineup with Watson under center, the Texans averaged nearly 40 points per game last year. Rowe’s season opener will have him facing a tough matchup. It should be a fun one to watch.

Rex Burkhead:

The Patriots brought back Burkhead this season after an injury shortened one in 2017. But there is no doubt when he was healthy and on the field, he was an integral part of the Patriots offense. That should not change in 2018 and in fact, his role may actually increase in the first month of the season with Edelman out.

Burkhead missed the Texans game last year after having a big game the week before against the Saints in the passing game. Look for Josh McDaniels to use Burkhead and James White as movable chess pieces in the backfield. The two will serve as slot receivers at times as they’ll put them in motion and try to create matchup problems.

In our key matchups, we said Burkhead may be the “X-Factor” in the game on Sunday. The Texans will be looking to put a lock on Rob Gronkowski and with him and the WRs clearing out some space, it could mean a big day for Burkhead.

Adrian Clayborn:

The Patriots signed the veteran edge player this spring and he was expected to show the veteran leadership role that befits someone of his standing. Clayborn has been the consummate pro since arriving, always being one of the first players on the field and helping the younger players

The Patriots pass rush and their play along the edge in 2017 was a big issue all season. Now, by adding Clayborn to Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise and getting Derek Rivers and Keionta Davis back from injuries that robbed their rookie seasons, the team is optimistic that they’ll be much improved.

But it all begins with Clayborn. He’ll be expected, and rightfully so, to lead the way on Sunday against a very good, young, mobile quarterback. It would do wonders for the confidence of a young group to get off to a good start this season.

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Patriots – Texans Week 1, Key Match Ups, Who Has the Razor’s Edge?

Steve Balestrieri
September 6, 2018 at 7:30 am ET

The New England Patriots will meet the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro. Kickoff is scheduled for Sunday afternoon at 1:00 p.m.

This week’s game will be televised by CBS and can be seen locally on WBZ-TV Channel 4 in Boston. Their top announcing crew will cover the game with Jim Nance, who will handle play-by-play duties with Tony Romo as the color analyst. Tracy Wolfson will work the sidelines. The game will also be aired on the Patriots flagship radio station 98.5 The Sports Hub with Bob Socci and Scott Zolak on the call, produced by Marc Capello.

The Patriots (13-3 in 2017) are looking to get 2018 off on a winning track. Tom Brady on the opening day of the season is 12-3, the best record for a QB during the Super Bowl era. The Patriots record in the past 10 years is 123-37, the best in the NFL

The Texans (4-12 in 2017) are healthy and looking to get back in the playoffs. They have a lot of their starters returning healthy after a disastrous 2017. Deshaun Watson was off to an electric start of his career before being placed on IR. They are looking to win in New England for the first time.

We here at PatsFans.com are continuing our “Razor’s Edge” column in 2018 to give some quick analysis on some of the key matchups of the game and what you can look for in how the game plays out.

Series History:

The Patriots and Texans will be meeting for just the 11th time as Houston entered the league in the 2002 season. The Patriots hold a 9-1 advantage in these contests while holding a perfect 5-0 advantage at home, including a pair of playoff wins over the Texans in Gillette.

The Patriots needed a vintage 4th quarter Tom Brady drive to beat Houston 36-33 last year in Week 3. Deshaun Watson was outstanding under center for Houston, passing for 301 yards and a pair of scores and the defense sacked Tom Brady five times.

Despite that, Brady passed for 378 yards and five touchdowns in the huge comeback win. The Pats defense didn’t have a great day but produced two interceptions of Watson.

So here are our Keys to the Game, and who gets the Razor’s Edge in the matchups. First up is the New England offense…

Patriots RBs vs Texans Front Seven – Razor’s Edge Houston

The Patriots running game once again made big changes during the offseason. Dion Lewis, Mike Gillislee and Brandon Bolden are gone. Jeremy Hill is in with James White. Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead have knee injuries and while they’ve been practicing again, it is probably doubtful both plays this week.

The Texans front seven is very good and despite the myriad of injuries they suffered last season, they were very good (13th) against the run. The Patriots could only muster 59 yards a year ago. Can Hill and White muster more than that? We say no this week.

Patriots WRs vs Texans Secondary – Razor’s Edge New England

The Patriots passing game is thin at WR with only four on the roster plus Matthew Slater. But here’s where the chess match gets interesting. The Texans have a ridiculous plethora of pass rushers, J.J. Watt, Whitney Merciless, Jadeveon Clowney as well as promising rookie Duke Ejiofor and sacked Brady five times last year. But Brady torched them across the middle of the field to the tune of 378 yards a 5 TDs.

Look for lots of two RB, and two TE sets to offset the lack of WRs. James White and Rob Gronkowski will be moved around a lot in motion, splitting out wide to get favorable matchups. Houston has two new safeties, Tyrann Mathieu (Honey Badger) and converted corner Kareem Jackson who are 5’9 and 5’10 respectively. Look for Brady to test them in coverage against the much bigger Gronkowski. Burkhead, if he’s available is the “X-Factor” for the Patriots passing game.

Next up the Houston offense

Texans RBs vs NE Front Seven – Razor’s Edge New England

Lamar Miller remains the workhorse for the Texans running game. He lost weight in the offseason to get back some of the explosiveness that was missing a year ago. However, second-year RB  D’Onta Foreman is on PUP for the Achilles he suffered last year. Watson burned the Patriots last year with his ability to scramble. After barely playing in the preseason, will he be given the green light to do it again?

The Patriots made some changes up front from last year, bringing in Danny Shelton who should anchor down the middle, in a rotation with Lawrence Guy, and Malcom Brown. Dont’a Hightower returns from his season-ending injury and should really help in the run defense which was porous last year. Houston has totally revamped their offensive line, which is still a question mark at this point.  

Texans WRs vs NE Secondary- Razor’s Edge Houston

Watson had the Texans offense exploding once he took over at QB last season, averaging nearly 40 points per game. He has one of the best WRs in the game in DeAndre Hopkins who caught 96 passes a year ago, most of the season with awful QB play. Will Fuller has been hurt but is supposed to play this week and he gives Watson a pair of extremely talented wide receivers. Tight End Ryan Griffin could be the “X-Factor” this week.

Last year the Patriots did a terrible job of containing Watson in the pocket, and if he gets out to the edge where he can run or throw, the defense will get gashed again. But unlike last year, when they went to a smaller, safety-centric look, I believe, they’ll go bigger here and look to anchor the edges and push the pocket from inside. The edge rushers, led by newcomer Adrian Clayborn, Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise, Derek Rivers, and Keionta Davis will have their hands full. Can they bring pressure without losing containment and force Watson to get rid of the ball early? We’ll see.   

Special Teams- Razor’s Edge New England

The Patriots’ Stephen Gostkowski and Ryan Allen are back and very solid. Allen, in particular, had an outstanding summer after being pushed in training camp by some competition. The Patriots coverage units are always solid although they’ll be missing two of their stalwarts from the past few years in Jordan Richards and Brandon Bolden. But they get back Nate Ebner and Matthew Slater and have added one of the most dynamic kick returners in the league in Cordarrelle Patterson. Who return punts at this juncture remains a mystery.

The Texans special teams were just awful a year ago, especially their kickoff coverage. But they brought in former Patriots ST coach Brad Seely to right the ship. Long-time punter Shane Lechler was released, beaten out by rookie Trevor Daniel. Kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn has a very strong but inaccurate at times leg.   

Next up, who wins and why…

Prediction:

The first game of the season is always the most difficult to predict. Because the element of the unknown is still out there. The starters for the offenses and a bit on defense haven’t played an entire game since last season and there are always new moving parts on both teams.

The key for the Texans is to get Watt untracked and early. If he’s his normal explosive self, the Texans’ Romeo Crennel will move him around and disrupt everything. A healthy Watt just makes Clowney, who is becoming an elite edge rusher and Mercilus, that much better rushing the QB. The Texans inside backers Benardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham, who is a sideline to sideline player will play key roles for them this week, trying to take away Gronkowski’s domain inside.

The Patriots will try to move their backs and tight ends around to create mismatches for Tom Brady to exploit. James White will probably be the most targeted member of the offense on Sunday. How well the offensive line holds up is always a key for the Patriots and especially against this excellent Houston front seven.

Defensively for New England, they try to match up against the Texans top two WRs but how well they do against the backs and tight ends will have a lot to say how this game goes. Containment of Watson in the pocket is key for Brian Flores group.

The Patriots are at home, which is always a big advantage for Brady and the offense. This one won’t be as high scoring as last year’s game, but Brady, White, and Gronkowski do enough to come away with a win.  Patriots 27-21

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Patriots 2018 Opponents, First Impressions of the Texans

Steve Balestrieri
September 4, 2018 at 7:30 am ET

The 2018 NFL season is finally upon us. And not a moment too soon. To say the offseason was overly long and contentious would be an understatement. But for a few hours on Sunday, we get to forget all of that and revel in the fact that the football season, with the games that count, is back amongst us.

The Patriots 2018 season begins with a very familiar foe coming to Foxboro. While the Houston Texans play in the AFC South, they’ve been a familiar foe for the Patriots who it seems, play the Texans every season, including a couple of playoff games in Foxboro.

Last year, the teams had a barn-burner with Tom Brady engineering a late drive with a perfect throw to Brandon Cooks for a game-winning touchdown with just seconds left. The 36-33 win by NE overshadowed the excellent game by Deshaun Watson who looked phenomenal for Houston in the 36-33 loss. Watson only played in seven games before tearing an ACL, but is now healthy and will start on Sunday.

So, here are our first impressions of the Texans of 2018…

Front Seven One of the Best in the NFL: The strength of the Texans is their defense and when they’re healthy, (they are right now), they are one of the best front sevens in the entire league. Led by J.J. Watt, this unit can really get after the passer. Watt is healthy after a two-year slew of injuries forced him onto the shelf. Watt, Whitney Merciless, Jadeveon Clowney and newcomer Duke Ejiofor from Duke gives them a ridiculous embarrassment of riches in the front seven.

Benardrick McKinney is the Mike linebacker and Zach Cunningham is the sideline to sideline linebacker on a front seven that has no weaknesses. Romeo Crennel will move these pieces around to where they feel they have the most advantageous matchups.

In the game, last season, the Texans, sacked Brady five times for 41 yards. Bill Belichick minced no words on how good the front seven is for Houston on Monday.

“They have a group of outstanding players. I mean, they’re among the very best in the league,” said Belichick. “So, very challenging and they have good depth, so they rotate some players through there that are maybe not quite as good as some of the other ones, but they’re still really good players.”

“They’re front four or front seven – however you want to look at it because some of those players are a little bit interchangeable – are very good, and one of the things that the Texans do a good job of is they don’t always line up in the same place. So, sometimes finding them or identifying where they are is a little bit of a problem – not that you can’t find a guy, but depending on what you have called and where he’s located, then that might change what your anticipated matchup on the play is and then what it really is could be two different things, and they do a good job of creating problems on that.”

Watson Ready to Turn It Back On: One of the better stories of the early part of the 2017 season was the play of rookie QB Deshaun Watson. He was positively electric in the early going before tearing an ACL in Week 7 that ended his and the Texans season.

Houston’s QB play was terrible after that and the injuries along the defense decimated what many thought would be a playoff team. But Watson is healthy now and despite a very limited preseason, he’s deemed ready to go for 2018.

Last season in Foxboro in Week 3, Watson threw for 301 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions and rushed eight times for 41 more yards. He had one play on a second and 22 where he looked like he was about to sacked twice, by Trey Flowers and Lawrence Guy, but spun out and left each holding air before delivering a strike downfield for 31 yards.

Whenever they face a mobile QB, the Patriots preach containment, which means the edge players must set the edge and not allow the QB to get outside of their rush lanes. If Watson does it again, like he did a year ago, he’ll put up big numbers again and has his favorite target, De’Andre Hopkins who caught 96 passes for 1378 yards and 13 touchdowns while dealing with awful quarterback play after Watson went down.

The Patriots defense will have their hands full on Sunday.

Big Turnover in Texans Roster: Things are constantly changing in the NFL landscape and the Texans roster is no stranger to that. Not only does Houston have the 7th youngest roster in the NFL at 25.6 years of age as the average, they’ve had a massive turnover in personnel.

Of the 53 players on the roster for the final regular season game of 2017, 31 of those players are gone. Of course, Houston had a rash of injuries last year with 24 players placed on IR. That, among other things, is why the team finished 4-12 and out of the playoffs. But this year’s team is expected to be much improved.

Still, it is different to see a Houston roster without so many mainstays including inside linebacker Brian Cushing, punter Shane Lechler, guard David Quessenberry and tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz and others gone.

Safety Will Be an Area to Watch on Sunday:

Houston has some uncertainty with the defense and it centers around the safety play. Kareem Jackson is making the transition from corner to safety after the 8-year veteran has played in 116 games as a cornerback. The Texans safeties struggled mightily and it is hoped that Jackson will be a stabilizing force there.

The team signed the “Honey Badger” Tyrann Mathieu as a free agent this year after he’s been bitten by the injury bug the past few seasons. When he was healthy, Mathieu was one of the more dynamic players in the league.

The team drafted rookie Justin Reid in the 3rd round of the 2018 NFL Draft this spring and it is expected that he’ll be a starter and soon but for now, he’ll back up the other two. Being the first game of the season, there may be some communication issues back there once the game planning takes place. Especially with two new faces there.

Foreman Begins Season on PUP: The Texans talented second-year running back D’Onta Foreman will begin the season on PUP after it appeared that he may be ready to start the season after tearing his Achilles tendon last year.

The big 6’1, 235 bruising running back from Texas played a big part in the Texans offense a year ago in Foxboro. Although he rushed for just 25 yards on eight carries, he had two huge receptions out of the backfield for 65 yards, one for 34 and one for 31.

“Honestly, it was a little tough, but it wasn’t that tough,” Foreman said about being placed on PUP. “We’re looking out for my best interests and the team’s best interests. I don’t want to be put out there (when) I’m not 100 percent and not at my best. That would be hindering the team (and) hindering myself. It was the best decision to make.”

With Foreman on the shelf until Week 7 against the Jaguars, look for Alfred Blue to get the majority of the snaps behind starter Lamar Miller.

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Patriots  Week 3 Report Card, Big Comeback Win over Houston

Steve Balestrieri
September 27, 2017 at 10:20 am ET

High Marks For Brady But What About the Defense?

The Patriots pulled out another win thanks to the continued brilliance of Tom Brady and were able to come from behind and defeat the Houston Texans 36-33 on a pass from #12 to Brandin Cooks with just 23 ticks left on the clock.

But there are some serious questions to be asked about the defense. New England’s defense now ranks 32nd in yards and more importantly 32nd in points allowed. A Houston team that had scored 20 points in its first two games lit them up for 33 and left some more points on the field.

So, we’ll start with the offense and the players can come forward to pick up their grade sheets.

Quarterback: A

Tom Brady was looking anything like the 40-year old that is A.) About to fall off a cliff. B.) Can’t throw the deep ball anymore, C.) A dink & dunk system QB on Sunday. Take your pick…did we leave any out? Rob Parker? Brady was under duress all afternoon and was sacked 5 times (4 by Houston and one by James White’s foot) and still managed to complete 25-35 for 378 yards and five TDs. Houston hadn’t allowed a 300-yard passer in over thirty + games. No more.

He was 5-8 throwing the deep ball and had the Texans very confused on the back end. He froze the deep safety by staring down the receiver on the game-winning TD giving Cooks time to get free and lofted a perfectly thrown ball right into the barrel. All of this with Jadeveon Clowney right in his grill. Tremendous poise and coolness under fire….again.

Running Backs: C

The backs weren’t targeted much in this one as they were mainly asked to stay in and either block or chip on their way out. James White had a nice 11-yard catch where he juked the defender and got the first down. But the backs were afterthoughts this week.

The running game was stuck in neutral. Mike Gillislee had just 31 yards on 12 carries as there was frequently nowhere to run (Cue up Martha and the Vandellas).

Wide Receivers: A+

These guys had their way with the Texans beat up secondary on Sunday. Chris Hogan scored two touchdowns on 7 and 47 yards that were ridiculously wide open. The wide receivers were creating space on the back end that the Texans couldn’t handle. As good as that front seven is, their backend is a liability. Brandin Cooks caught a bomb to start things off on the Patriots first drive, a really nice catch where he was interfered with and still brought down the pass.

Cooks had another nice catch on a 42-yard post where he caught the ball in the middle of the field with separation from newcomer Jonathan Banks and kicked his speed into high gear, leaving him in the dust for an easy touchdown. He then beat Kareem Jackson for the game-winner with under a minute to go.

Danny Amendola returned from a concussion and what a difference he made. Again, as we’ve said here many times, don’t judge him by his stats. He drew two defensive penalties and his catch on the Patriots final drive on third and 18 near midfield was a beauty. He got a bit of separation from Eddie Pleasant, went high up and came down the ball tucked away. Money.

Tight Ends: B

The Patriots got Rob Gronkowski back after tweaking a groin in New Orleans and he had a typical Gronk game. The big man had 8 catches for 89 yards and a touchdown and was giving the Houston safeties fits. He did a very good job of blocking, several times staying in to block JJ Watt or chip him on his way out in the pattern.

Dwayne Allen is really struggling right now, he had another drop and has zero catches so far this year. No one was expecting huge numbers from him but not this either. His blocking was okay but he did get taken to school on one play by Whitney Mercilus, but lots of guys do. Jacob Hollister had a nice catch down the seam for a nice game and then took a big shot but once again showed he was able to hold onto the ball. I think we’ll see more of him moving forward.

Offensive Line: C

The offensive line didn’t have a good day. With Marcus Cannon out the team used  Cam Fleming and LaAdrian Waddle and both of them had issues. JJ Watt blew threw each on the first two plays of the game and had run stuffs behind the line. Nate Solder is playing hurt and was beaten on several plays. The interior of the line fared little better. Joe Thuney was pushed back violently by Watt and fell into Solder’s legs, allowing Clowney a free rush and he crushed Brady.

On a day where the line allowed five sacks and opened precious little running room for the running backs, they didn’t have their best day. But as we pointed out, Houston’s front seven is among the best in football.

Defensive Line: C

The Patriots defensive line set up to stop the run, frequently putting ten men in the box, practically daring the rookie QB, DeShaun Watson to throw. And despite that, with an offensive line playing pretty horribly and being banged up, the Texans ran for 125 yards on the ground. That isn’t getting it done. They had a hard time bringing down the elusive, eel-like Watson on several plays, but one has the feeling that we’re going to see a lot of that moving forward.

The pass rush was inconsistent but did get some pressure at times. Cassius Marsh had a pretty good day with a sack and a couple of pressures. Deatrich Wise was bearing down on Watson early in the game and forced him into an errant throw that was easily picked off by Stephon Gilmore. But the line stepped up big at the end of the game with Alan Branch and Malcom Brown stuffing a 3rd and 1 at the Patriots 18-yard line forcing a field goal. If Houston converts there, they probably score six and walk away with the win.

Linebackers: C

Dont’a Hightower missed his second game (not surprisingly) and Kyle Van Noy played every snap on defense. He had some up and down moments but he guessed wrong and went for a pick on a pass to D’Onta Foreman in the flat. He didn’t get there and Foreman rolled for a 34-yard gain. His diving play on Lamar Miller was a beauty, stopping him from breaking off a big gain. Elandon Roberts was mostly solid in the run defense but is still a liability in coverage. David Harris is still MIA.

Secondary: C-

The team played a lot of zone coverage because of the presence of a running QB and as we’ve said before, this team doesn’t do zone well. Once again the big plays killed the secondary where they allowed a rookie QB to throw for over 300 yards on the day. The secondary allowed six passes of more than 20 yards. Malcolm Butler returned to the lineup with Eric Rowe injured and played well. Gilmore had an up and down day. He had an interception and a nice return but then took a needless penalty on a deep throw where he had good coverage as well as safety help. Jonathan Jones struggled on the day and was picked on a bit. Pat Chung gave up a big play as did Devin McCourty who was beaten for a touchdown to Ryan Griffin in the end zone. Unfortunately, we’ll probably see more zone this week as Cam Newton is coming to town.

Special Teams: B+

Stephen Gostkowski made all of his extra point attempts and his kickoffs were perfectly placed allowing the coverage units to go down and make plays. With Nate Ebner back, they did just that. Brandon Bolden made two very good plays on the coverage team.
Amendola’s return re-ignited a sleepy return game and he had big returns of 33 and 20 yards. The first of which set up the Patriots first touchdown (Did we say $$$).

Ryan Allen was okay, he put three punts inside the 20 but when they were pinned deep, he shanked one, giving the Texans excellent field position. But the overall coverage units were outstanding and this week. Once Matthew Slater returns, we expect it to get even better.

Coaches: B-

Bill Belichick’s best move of the day was allowing his team to be itself. There was none of this phony, “we’re all going to kneel or none of us are” BS or anything else. He let the players decide how to handle it and they seemed to become closer as a group because of it. The comments after the game seem to echo that. Brilliant move on his part. However….

We can stop with the narrative about rookie QBs facing a Bill Belichick defense for now. Yeah, sure they won the game because of the continued magnificence of Tom Brady. But it was Watson who for the vast majority of the game who took Belichick and Matt Patricia’s defense to school and the Texans who weren’t supposed to move the ball at all this season, pushed the Pats defense around easily. They tried to confuse Watson by constantly bringing ten men up in the box and daring him to throw….he did. The problem was, they never came thru with the threat of bringing pressure and Watson wasn’t intimidated at all.

Offensively, the plan was simple, they were going to attack the deep part of the field, and despite the issues on the offensive line, they accomplished that quite well. We could get nit picky with a few of Josh McDaniels play calls, but against that defense, putting up 36 points….is a very good day.

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Brady, Cooks Bail Out Patriots With Last Minute Heroics

Steve Balestrieri
September 25, 2017 at 6:30 am ET

For fifty-seven and a half minutes, the Houston Texans worked hard to erase a lot of bad memories in Foxboro. They went toe-to-toe with defending Super Bowl Champions and using an outstanding front seven of their defense and an up and coming rookie quarterback who frustrated and flummoxed the Patriots defense, they were in a position to win for the first time in New England up by a score of 33-28.

But the Patriots have Tom Brady and as he showed in February, he’ll be a 60-minute man and beyond. And he was at his very best once again when the chips were pushed into the middle of the table. Brady and the Patriots offense took over at their 25-yard line with 2:24 to go and actually went 85 yards thanks to a penalty that pushed them back to the 15-yard line. Facing a second and twenty, Brady went to Rob Gronkowski two times to get the key first down. Later facing a third and eighteen, he hit a strike to Danny Amendola.

Then the beauty to Cooks, a high-arcing pass that Brady dropped right into the bucket from 25 yards out with just 23 seconds to go for another improbable comeback win. But those seem to happen with such regular occurrence that sometimes we forget how special they are. Cooks had his man beaten cleanly and had to wait for the ball to come down, making a great catch while catching a forearm to the head and doing a great toe-tap to stay in bounds.

Brady described the play to the press after the game as he did a great job to look the safety off to give Cooks a one-on-one shot and he delivered.

“They were playing a two-high defense and we got Cookie behind the corner,” Brady said. “We had Danny going up the middle of the field, so I tried to stare down the middle and then put it up and didn’t really see the end of it until I saw it on the scoreboard. It was close, and then they reviewed it. I’m glad we got the two-point play. It was a great win. Got to play to the last second.”

Brady finished 25-35 for 378 yards with 5 TDs and 0 Interceptions for a ridiculous passer rating of 146.2 despite being under pressure most of the day.  Cooks finished with 5 catches for 131 yards and two big touchdowns.

As we said in our pregame matchups, this was the reason the Patriots brought Cooks in this spring. Houston took away the middle of the field on those short/intermediate routes but Cooks with Hogan, now give the Patriots the speed to challenge opponents on the perimeter. And as good as Houston’s front seven is, their secondary was being ripped by Brady when he had time to throw.
His first completion of the day was a 44-yard bomb to Cooks on third down which set up a short Brady to Gronkowski touchdown pass. He also had a 42-yard score where he ran a post and then easily outran the coverage to the end zone. Brady also hit Hogan for two scores a 7-yarder and a 47-yarder which were ridiculously wide open.

Other observations include:

Watt Off the Score Sheet But Was a Big Influence: Texans’ DL J.J. Watt may not have gotten a sack in the game but don’t think for a second that he wasn’t influencing things. The Patriots doubled him on nearly every snap, and on plays that they didn’t he was chipped by Gronkowski on the way into the passing routes.

The first two plays of the game Watt dropped runners for a loss and on the pancake sack by Jadeveon Clowney, it was all set up by Watt. He bull-rushed LG Joe Thuney and shoved him into the back of Nate Solder’s legs sending them both tumbling. Clowney then had a clear path to Brady’s blind side and pancaked him to the ground.

Just because Watt didn’t register a sack doesn’t mean that he wasn’t influencing things out there. The Patriots were doubling him for a reason. I thought he played a very solid game.

Patriots Showed A Lot But Didn’t Come After Watson: Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia bluffed a lot, frequently putting ten men up in the box, practically daring QB DeShaun Watson to throw. But without the benefit of rewatching the tape yet, they didn’t blitz him much, if at all. And Watson hung in there, and for the most part had plenty of time to throw. When he didn’t, he bought time with his legs, showing an amazing ability to escape and deliver the ball.

Watson finished 22-33 for 301 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Although he had a couple of balls sail on him, he was pretty accurate for the most part. He had really only one bad throw, his first pick was a throw right to Stephon Gilmore.

Heat Took it Out on Both Teams: The unnaturally hot day was more akin to an August training camp practice than it was to a late September game with temperatures on the field over 90 degrees. Gilmore had to leave due to heat issues in the second half but did return. His absence left the team short for a spell. WIth Eric Rowe out, it left the team with Malcolm Butler and Jonathan Jones on the outside.

With that thought, both Butler and Gilmore played pretty well today. The main issues with the secondary were once Watson broke free from the pass rush it invariably means someone is going to get open downfield.

Situational Football Fail Early in the 4th Quarter: After the game, Bill Belichick spoke to the press about how the team in the final few minutes, excelled in situational football which was true. However early in the fourth quarter, the team had a situational failure that nearly cost them. On their first possession of the quarter, the Patriots faced a third and one and they rushed up to the line and tried to snap the ball quickly to catch the Texans off guard, a run to Mike Gillislee.

The Patriots have been going to the well one too many times with that particular strategy and teams aren’t going to fall for it anymore.

Facing a Houston Texans team with Bill O’Brien, Romeo Crennel, Mike Vrabel, Larry Izzo and Wes Welker on the coaching staff who have all been part of so many Patriots games where they used that strategy….it wasn’t going to fool them.  The Texans were ready and easily stuffed the play. Josh McDaniels should have known that, taken his time and gotten the first down. That was a big momentum swing the other way. With that being said….

Defense Has a Long Way to Go: There is no other way to sugar coat this one…the defense has a lot of work to do. Thru three weeks, this unit lacks a finish and they get passive at times, as they always have, against running QBs. Watson resembled anything but a rookie for much of the game on Sunday and there remain many issues to fix.

Oh, and there is another running QB coming to Foxboro next Sunday. Cam Newton looked awful against the same New Orleans defense that Brady scorched last week. He threw for only 167 yards, no touchdowns, and three picks on Sunday. Somehow, I don’t see a continuation of those type of numbers next week.

Running Game Stuck In Neutral: Before the game, too many people were looking at the stat sheet and saying the Houston run defense was weak, after their Week 1 debacle against Jacksonville. We pointed out here, that was more of an anomaly and running was going to be an issue for the Patriots. And unfortunately, we were correct. The running game never got untracked and the first two possessions of the fourth quarter ended with the team failing on third and one …twice. That is unacceptable and needs to get fixed. The offensive line was getting no push on those plays. The team rushed 20 times for just 59 yards.

While the Texans have one of the best front sevens in football, the Patriots have come up short in five short yardage plays already this season, three against Kansas City and the two against Houston. While Marcus Cannon was out and Nate Solder has been playing hurt, it is more of an offensive line issue than one with the RBs, especially Mike Gillisllee.

Gronkowski Has a Big Game: Questions were around all week if tight end Rob Gronkowski would play this week after tweaking his groin in New Orleans, despite him saying numerous times that he was good to go.

Well, he played… and was his typical Gronk self. He scored the first touchdown of the game on a pass from Tom Brady and finished with 8 catches for 89 yards. He had two big catches on the final drive got the team going.

And he is an outstanding blocker, the team frequently either kept him in to help buy Brady time or had him chip J.J Watt on his routes. But he showed no signs of being injured from a week ago and was a key part of the big comeback win.

Amendola was Money Again: I don’t know how many times we’ve written here to don’t judge Danny Amendola strictly by his stats because they’re usually always at a big point in the game and when the team needs it the most. Sunday he was at it again.

We looked to him this week to take some of the pressure off of the outside wide receivers and he did that. While he had just three catches for 48 yards, his 27-yarder from Brady on the big third down and eighteen call was immense and set the table for Cooks’ game-winner.

Amendola also resurrected the return unit which had zero yardage last week. He had two big punt returns for 53 yards which flipped field position and set the team up in both cases. With Julian Edelman out for the year, players have to step up and Amendola did his job …once again on Sunday. He isn’t the biggest guy on the field, but he’s clutch and has arguably the surest hands on the team.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Five New England Patriots Players to Watch Against the Texans

Steve Balestrieri
September 23, 2017 at 9:42 am ET

Pats Facing a Familiar Foe

The Patriots take on the Texans for the third time in the past year, so this is an opponent that the team knows well. Besides all of the ex-Pats on the Texans’ coaching staff. They met in Week 2 and the Divisional Round of the playoffs last year and conducted some joint practices along with a preseason game this summer. The level of familiarity is there, and that will bring out some of the rivalries we normally see reserved for divisional foes.

The Patriots have had very good success against Houston and have never lost to them in Foxboro. But despite that, this is a team they respect and their defense, especially their front seven is one of the best in the NFL. The Patriots changed the way they practice because of J.J. Watt. That speaks to the level of respect.

If you’ve attended any of the practice sessions at training camp and you see the coaching assistants at the line of scrimmage waving those tennis rackets when Tom Brady and the QBs throw? That is because of Watt. A few years ago before a big game with Houston here, Watt’s ability to knock passes down at the line was well known, so the Patriots installed that little tactic in before that game. If Brady’s passes weren’t right where they needed to be, the long arms with rackets would knock the pass down. It is a training tool that they’ve now kept and use regularly.  So, with that in mind….

Here are our five players from a Patriots perspective to watch on Sunday:

Quarterback Tom Brady: The Patriots QB had a big bounce-back game last week against the Saints throwing for 447 yards and three scores. But on Sunday, he’ll be facing a Texans defense that hasn’t allowed a 300-yard passer in 30 games. Trivia question: Who was the last QB to throw for 300 yards against Houston? (Blake Bortles, Jax QB threw for 331 in October 2015)

He’ll be facing a Texans defense that knows the Patriots well. Romeo Crennel was the DC here for the first three Super Bowls of the Patriots era. Defensive Coordinator Mike Vrabel played an integral part of those teams. Houston head coach Bill O’Brien was the offensive coordinator for the Pats.  So, Houston knows what the Pats like to do, especially in certain downs and situations. Vrabel will try to change his pre-snap looks to something different once the ball is hiked to slow Brady’s thought process down and give his pass rush that extra half-second to get home.

Of course, Brady knows this too, he’ll be ready for the shifting line just before the snap, to the secondary members shifting at the snap. It all will come down to execution. Brady will have all his WRs back at his disposal this week (sans Julian Edelman). But in this one, I’m looking for the running backs to get a lot of looks in the passing game.

In the playoff game in January, Brady was just 18-38 for 287 yards with 2 TDs and 2 INTs. The Patriots weren’t good (5-14 only 36 percent) on third down. And this was facing a Texans defense without Watt. He’ll have to be on top of his game Sunday.

Safety Devin McCourty: The Patriots defensive philosophy has always been to try to take away their opponent’s best weapon and force them to beat you in other ways. For the Texans, whose WRs and TEs have been banged up, they’ll once again rely on DeAndre Hopkins in the passing game.

Hopkins has been targeted 29 times in the first two games, nearly half of the Texans 60 pass attempts. The Patriots know this and know who the priority to stop is. One of the issues they’ve had on defense thus far has been the giving up on big plays, something they were excellent at stopping a year ago. The Texans are limited offensively and forcing them to work their way down the field to score is the way to force their rookie QB (DeShaun Watson) into making mistakes.

McCourty is the QB of the secondary. He’s in charge of making sure those communications issues don’t happen and he’ll be the last line of defense in stopping Hopkins from ringing up big plays. The team will use a corner underneath and bracket him over the top. McCourty will be that last line of defense.

Wide Receivers Brandin Cooks/Danny Amendola:  Double dipping here. The new Patriots wide receiver (Cooks) has been good but not great yet this season. By his own account, the speedster has been disappointing as he wants to be a dominant part of the offense. While he’s on pace for a 1000 yard season, he knows he’s capable of more.

This is the reason the Patriots got him this spring. Teams that will try to clog the middle of the field to take away the short/intermediate passes and dare them to throw deep. Cooks has the speed to make them pay. With top corner Jonathan Joseph, not 100 percent physically and Kevin Johnson out expect Brady and the Patriots to test the defense deep. Cooks may be in-line for his first big day offensively.

Amendola returns from the concussion protocol and will be the quick slot target underneath that they’ll need Sunday to counter the pass rush of the Texans. Edelman had a big game against Houston in the playoffs and Brady will need Amendola to get those short, move-the-sticks catches underneath to keep drives alive.

Linebacker Kyle Van Noy: The Patriots linebacker has taken on different roles since arriving here from Detroit last season. He’s been asked to do a little bit of everything. This week, he may get placed on the running backs out of the backfield. Lamar Miller is a guy the Patriots know well having faced him in both Miami and in Houston. He’s a valuable guy running the ball and catching it out of the backfield. He, D’Onta Foreman and possibly Tyler Ervin will present some challenges for Watson to target underneath.

Van Noy may be used to slow down the backs out of the backfield or to help keep Watson in the pocket this week. It will be an on-going chess match to see how the defense aligns to try to keep Houston’s offense in check this week. Van Noy will play a key part of this.

Offensive Line: We could have picked Nate Solder or Marcus Cannon (if he even plays) as the Texans can bring the heat from the edges. But having Watt healthy this time, and knowing how Houston can move him around, this will need to be a collective effort by Dante Scarnecchia’s crew this week.

In the playoff game in January, the Texans brought their pressure up the middle against Center David Andrews and it worked very well, they kept Brady off-balance all game long and completed less than 50 percent of his passes. They could do this again, or attack off the right side where either Cannon will be less than 100 percent or target his replacement.

The Texans to win this game will need a big defensive effort and probably generate some turnovers as well. They can’t get into a shootout with the Patriots given their lack of weapons on offense right now. Watt, Clowney, and Mercilus have yet to register a sack this season. They’d like nothing better than to break out in a big game against Brady. The offensive line play will be key this week for New England to win.

Stay tuned to PatsFans.com as well have up-to-the-minute breaking news as well as post-game analysis.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

New England Patriots 2017 Opponents, 5 First Impressions of the Texans

Steve Balestrieri
September 20, 2017 at 6:30 am ET

Patriots Favorites in Rematch With Texans

The Patriots return home after the first road trip of the season and a successful one down in New Orleans. Their next opponent may not have the explosive offensive potential of Drew Brees but the Houston Texans have one of the better defenses in the NFL and they’ve constructed it with beating the Patriots in mind. The teams met twice last season, a Thursday Night Football game in Week 2 when Tom Brady was still under suspension and in the Divisional Playoff game in Foxboro, both won by New England.

The Texans like the Patriots played very poorly in Week 1, getting beat at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball by the Jacksonville Jaguars who sacked Texans QBs 10 times. They rebounded nicely and put together a much better performance, especially on the defensive side which was dominant in their 13-9 win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Thursday Night Football. Rookie QB Deshaun Watson stepped in and played well.  He protected the ball and gave the Texans a chance to win the game. The Texans, also like the Patriots have been hit hard by the injury bug. They were without three tight ends in Cincinnati, lost both starting corners during the game and has to deal with LB Brian Cushing serving a 10-game suspension.

Here are our further Five Impressions of the Texans:

Watson Is In At QB…For Now: When the Texans drafted Deshaun Watson, they knew they were getting a big-time playmaker, as anyone who watched the college national championship game against Alabama can attest to. It is just that no one expected him to be starting this early in his career.

Head Coach Bill O’Brien ran an open QB competition this spring and summer and it was won by Tom Savage. But during the opener, O’Brien used the hook on Savage quickly, benching him after only a half when the entire team not just Savage played poorly. Those kinds of benchings can do irreparable damage to a young QBs confidence level.

Watson came on in the second half in the loss to Jacksonville and got the start against the Bengals. He played well and ran five times for a team-high 67 yards including a highlight reel 49-yard touchdown, the only score of the game and completed 15 of 24 passes for 125 yards with no interceptions and three sacks.

If Watson begins to struggle at some point and all rookie QBs do, how will O’Brien handle the very talented rookie? Don’t be surprised if O’Brien tries to cook up some trickery with the rookie since there is very little tape to study with him yet.

Miller and Foreman make for an Ideal 1-2 Punch: The Texans signed Lamar Miller away from the Dolphins a year ago and he has become their #1 back and was backed by big back Alfred Blue. But this season, the Texans drafted Texas running back D’Onta Foreman and he seems to be on the fast track to becoming the #2 back in the rotation as well as pushing for reps away from Miller.

Miller has gotten the lion’s share of the reps in the first two weeks, carrying the ball 35 times for 126 yards, good for only a 3.7 yard per carry average. Foreman, the 6’0, 233-lb back is only averaging 3.4 yards per carry. The problem isn’t with the two backs who are both very good, it has been the offensive line which has struggled to open lanes for them to run.

We were very high on Foreman coming out in the 2017 NFL Draft and thought he’d be a great fit here. Our draft profile on Foreman can be found here: During the preseason game in August, Foreman took a pass from Watson 63-yards against the Patriots defense.

Watt is Back and Leads the Texans Defense: With J.J. Watt back this season, the Houston defense has one of the best players in the NFL back to help an already very good defense. Watt leads a group of four excellent players on the front seven for Houston including Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, and Benardrick McKinney.

The excellent front seven is difficult to contain as they have so many impact players it is difficult to double-team any one player as opponents have to account for all of them. They can rush three and drop eight into coverage and still bring pressure on the quarterback. In the playoff game a year ago, they brought continuous pressure up the middle on Brady and flooded the middle of the field, taking away the short passing game across the middle. Julian Edelman had a big game against them in January. It will be interesting to see how the Patriots try to attack their defense this time around.

After a very lackluster opening game and allowing 155 yards on the ground, their defense was resembling the Texans defense we all recognize against the Bengals. They allowed just 82 yards rushing and kept the Bengals out of the end zone, allowing just three field goals in a very impressive showing. Expect the Texans defense to be sky high for this one on Sunday afternoon.

Fuller Returns to Practice: Texans WR Will Fuller broke his collarbone during training camp on August 2 and was expected to miss 2-3 months. But the fact that the Texans didn’t place him on IR to begin the season spoke to the belief that they’d have him back sooner rather than later. And with the release of WR Jaelen Strong this week, it seems that it will indeed be sooner. Fuller returned to practice on Tuesday.

Fuller is now in his second season with the Texans after being drafted in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft out of Notre Dame. Fuller finished his rookie season of 2016 with 47 catches for 635 yards and two touchdowns.

If he’s able to return on Sunday to play against the Patriots, it would be a huge boost to the passing game. Because right now their biggest threat is De’Andre Hopkins and not much else.

Houston was without all three top tight ends, C.J. Fiedorowicz, Ryan Griffin and Stephen Anderson against Cincinnati. All three suffered concussions against Jacksonville in the opener. We won’t know until later on Wednesday when the injury report comes out if the three are going to be available on Sunday.

Texans Sign Cornerback Jonathan Banks in a Depth Move: In the Thursday game against Cincinnati, Houston lost both starting cornerbacks Kevin Johnson and Jonathan Joseph to injury. Joseph is expected to be back on the field this week in New England. However, Johnson is expected to miss about three weeks so the team added former Buccaneers corner, Jonathan Banks, to bolster their depth.

Kareem Jackson who came in for Johnson and played well is expected to get the start but the addition of Banks gives the Texans a much-needed boost of depth in their secondary.

The 27-year-old Banks was a second-round pick of the Bucs in 2013 out of Mississippi State. Banks was traded to the Detroit Lions in November of 2016 for a seventh-round pick. He was then released the next month and then signed with the Bears. He was just released by the Bears earlier this month.  He has recorded a total of 136 tackles, 17 pass deflections, seven interceptions and one touchdown during his NFL career

In a corresponding move, the team released TE Evan Baylis who was signed off the practice squad this week to fill in for the three tight ends who were out due to concussions. If Baylis clears waivers, he’s expected to be signed back to the practice squad.  

Check back with us later in the week as we’ll break down the key matchups for the game right here on PatsFans.com.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Week 3 Patriots Report Card, High Marks in Shutout Win

Steve Balestrieri
September 23, 2016 at 11:27 am ET

The Patriots are 3-0 and one has to wonder how in the world doesn’t Bill Belichick ever get any consideration for Coach of the Year. This team perennially wins a dozen games and is always in the mix, yet he’s always snubbed as the coach du jour wins the coach of the year award. With the job he’s done thus far, to quote Celtics legend Larry Bird, “who is playing for second?”

So how did the Patriots grade out? Still missing Brady, Hightower, Ninkovich and Lewis, Jimmy Garoppolo joined the ranks of the missing Thursday night as he was scratched due to a sprained AC joint in his throwing shoulder.

So we’ll start with the offense and the players can come forward to pick up their grade sheets.

Quarterback: A-
Jacoby Brissett got the start in place of Garoppolo, in lieu of Brady….and played with the poise that belied his lack of experience. The coaches came up with a masterful game plan that made his throws easier and relied on the running game, but it didn’t matter. Brissett did exactly what they were hoping for.

While his numbers weren’t anything special, 11-19 for 103 yards, he did rush 8 times for 48 yards and a huge 27-yard touchdown, it was what he DIDN’T do that stood out. The mantra from the coaches all week was “Don’t turn the ball over.”

He didn’t and ran the offense efficiently and made some plays with his feet when the protection broke down. He just missed on a couple of deep throws where the Pats had single coverage looks.

Running Backs: A
LeGarrette Blount followed up a big game against Miami with another big one just four days later against the Texans. Blount had a huge second half as he scored twice while rolling up 24 carries for 105 yards overall.

Blount was stopped for little gain in the first half but his value comes in with the team sticking with the run as he’s a closer and gets better on the 2nd and 4th quarters. Those one and two-yard runs in first half become much better as the game progresses. Blount in the second half carried 17 times for 94 yards and two touchdowns.

The team has leaned on him during Brady’s absence and he’s responded in a very big and positive fashion. Blount has already carried the ball 75 times for 298 yards and four touchdowns. His numbers play out over a 16 game season to nearly 1600 yards.  While those numbers won’t continue especially once Brady returns, it shows just how effective a runner he’s been.

Wide Receivers: B
This wasn’t a big game for the wide receivers as the coaches didn’t game plan a lot of throwing, in general, limiting Brissett to just 19 passes overall. Julian Edelman led the way with 4 of the 8 passes that Brissett completed to the wide receivers. Edelman also chipped in with three runs in the running game and acted as a decoy a few times in the backfield.

Malcolm Mitchell only caught one pass but it was a big 27-yarder and it perfectly symbolized the Texans frustration as he broke numerous tackles on the way to pick up the big first down. Amendola and Hogan each chipped in as well but one thing they all did well was to block in the running game, a must in the Patriots system.

Tight Ends: B
Martellus Bennett had another strong game in run support with his blocking which has been stellar all season. He too chipped in the passing game with a couple of catches as well as a run on a sweep where he picked up six yards.

Rob Gronkowski made his first appearance of the 2016 season and he appears that he’s far from 100 percent physically. He stayed in to block for the most part and was targeted in the passing game only once.

Offensive Line: A-
The story line this week (which Bill Belichick is waiting for), was the ferocious Houston front seven and how they were going to try and fluster the rookie QB into making mistakes. We bought into that line of thinking as well.

Well, the Patriots offensive dominated in the trenches last night. How many times did we hear J.J. Watt’s name on Thursday night? Jadaveon Clowney? Whitney Merciless? None of the big three for Houston had any impact or impactful plays during the game.

The Patriots rushed 39 times for 185 yards, which was good for a 4.7-yard average and three touchdowns. Houston didn’t get much pressure on Brissett and sacked him only once. It was Dante Scarnecchia’s charges best game thus far on the season.

Defensive Line: B+
The Patriots defensive line was very impressive on Thursday night. With their alignment, they basically dared Houston to run the ball. But while the Texans rushed for 109 yards in the game, they were generally ineffective doing so.

While rushing just four for the majority of the game, the Patriots were able to get enough pressure on Brock Osweiler to influence many of his throws. Jabaal Sheard, one of our pre-game players to watch had two sacks in a very strong game. Chris Long and Trey Flowers also had productive games at pushing the pocket and setting the edge.

The interior players, Alan Branch, Malcolm Brown and to a lesser extent Anthony Johnson and Vincent Valentine were stout at the point of attack. The Texans were trying to establish the run to set up play-action deep down the field and didn’t happen.

Linebackers: A-
Jamie Collins had his best game of the season. One of our other pre-game players to watch was a presence all over the field, had 14 tackles and an interception. Without Hightower in the lineup, Collins had to step up and he did in a big way. When Collins is playing like that, it is easy to see why he’s considered one of the better inside linebackers in the game.

Jonathan Freeny saw the most snaps in lieu of Hightower as he’s clearly earned the trust of Belichick. Shea McClellin and Barkevious Mingo played sparingly.

Secondary: A-
What a difference a few days makes. After getting gashed in the second half by Miami, the secondary, especially the cornerbacks turned in a fantastic performance. The plan was to take away the deep ball by having the cornerback’s undercut the routes of DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller and having over the top safety help in a Cover-2 shell. It worked perfectly.

Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler stuck with Hopkins (4 catches, 56 yards), and Fuller (3 catches for 31 yards) and even when they did make a catch, they were in a position to contest everything. It was a night and day scenario from Sunday.

McCourty, Chung, and Harmon did a great job of giving over the top safety help. Although they played far off the line, they did come up in run support. The leading receiver for Houston (by design by Matt Patricia), was the TE Griffin who caught 8 passes for 52 yards. The Patriots will take that all day long.

Special Teams: A
Punter Ryan Allen was fantastic on Thursday night…what a difference again from Sunday. He averaged 47.6 yards per punt and had six downed inside the 15-yard line. He more than anyone else, influenced field position all night long.

Stephen Gostkowski was perfect on five kicks (3 PATs, 2 FGs) and his mortar kickoffs were directly responsible for the Patriots for generating two turnovers. The only downgrade was rookie returner Cyrus Jones putting the ball on the ground twice. One of which got called back by the officials.

Coaches: A+
Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels, Matt Patricia and Joe Judge all get the highest grades possible. They put together a fantastic gameplan, saw the team see it thru perfectly and totally had their counterparts in Houston on the ropes all night long. Belichick put on a coaching clinic on Thursday night and to enter the game with a 3rd string rookie QB and win by 27 points is a testament how one-sided this game was.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.