By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots have big matchup problems with some players on the Houston Texans, but it’s not who you think.
Texans All-World defensive end J.J. Watt continues to recover from offseason back surgery. Though he recorded 1.5 sacks and a fumble recovery in Week 2 against the Kansas City Chiefs, he has yet to play with a full workload and has struggled to defend the run or play like his normal self, based on his Pro Football Focus grade of just 48.8 (“poor”) through two games. A slower Watt could make things easier for the Patriots, who usually have to key on taking him out of games with extra blockers.
Would Watt at less than 100 percent still be a “Matchup Nightmare” against Marcus Cannon one-on-one? Perhaps. But it’s more likely that his presence, as it usually does, would more open things up for his teammates in the Texans front-seven. The Texans also present significant problems on the offensive side of the ball with their receivers.
What about the home team? The Patriots also have some players who could step up big-time this week due to their likely matchups based on Pro Football Focus, and they may not be the first names to roll off your tongue. There are obvious choices here, but the Patriots have proven capable of neutralizing the obvious choices in the past. Here are the not-so-obvious top-four players who could emerge as “Matchup Nightmares” as the Patriots take on the Texans Thursday night. …
4. Malcom Brown
The second-year defensive tackle hasn’t exactly jumped off the screen in two games so far in 2016, but he’s been solid against the run. Pro Football Focus rates him a 72.9 in run defense so far, which they rate as simply “average,” but he did shed a key block on a sneaky-important play against Miami where Jonathan Freeny forced a fumble from the Dolphins’ Jay Ajayi.
Brown would likely line up against left guard Xavier Su’a-Filo and center Greg Mancz, both of whom have severely struggled against the run according to PFF, each logging sub-50 grades. It’s reasonable to suggest that Brown could have his best game of the year in that matchup. Honorable mention goes to Trey Flowers and Jabaal Sheard, either of which could line up against those same interior linemen in Nickel packages.
3. Will Fuller
Everyone knows how great DeAndre Hopkins has been since taking over the No. 1 receiver role in the Texans offense, but Houston starts the 2016 season with another threat below him. Rookie receiver Will Fuller is off to a strong start to his NFL career, with nine catches for 211 yards and a touchdown. Drops are a part of his game – Fuller has been targeted 18 times – but if he goes one-on-one with Malcolm Butler, he could present problems in the secondary.
Bill Belichick spoke highly of Fuller, whom the Patriots scouted for the 2016 draft, in his Monday conference call, describing him as a “really impressive player” coming out of the draft and a “very good vertical threat” on the field. It’s likely that the Patriots defend Hopkins similarly to the Patriots-Texans tilt last season, bracketing him with Logan Ryan and a safety over the top. The problem is, Fuller is also a big-play threat after the catch, which Belichick knows full well, and the Patriots may also need deep help to contain him.
2. Martellus Bennett
Bennett has shown off his prowess as both a blocker and pass-catcher in his first two games with the Patriots, primarily blocking for Jimmy Garoppolo and LeGarrette Blount in Week 1 against the Arizona Cardinals and catching five balls for 114 yards and a touchdown on Sunday against the Dolphins. PFF has Bennett graded as the seventh-best run-blocking tight end in the league through two weeks with a 79.7 grade; if Jacoby Brissett ends up the starting quarterback on Thursday, Bennett will likely find himself doing just that.
The Texans do appear to have enough personnel to contain Bennett in the passing game, but they could have trouble getting past the 6-foot-6 tight end coming off the edge. That’s where much of the Texans’ pressure on the quarterback comes from, but they don’t always have to deal with a mountainous tight end tacked onto the end of the line. Bennett has already proven that he can be a difference-maker no matter what his role is; Thursday night should be more of the same.
1. Whitney Mercilus
In the Texans front-seven, J.J. Watt is the marquee name, while Jadeveon Clowney is off to a solid start and possesses All-Pro potential as a former No. 1 overall pick. But it’s defensive end/outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus that has made the greatest all-around impact on the Houston defense so far.
The fifth-year pro out of Illinois had a semi-breakout last season, notching 12 sacks while starting just 11 games. He has two sacks so far in 2016 and is graded as PFF’s fifth-best “edge defender,” trailing only the Broncos’ Von Miller, the Bills’ Jerry Hughes, the Eagles’ Brandon Graham, and the Packers’ Nick Perry. Just behind him are the Chiefs’ Tamba Hali, the Patriots’ Chris Long, and the Jets’ Sheldon Richardson. Pretty good company there.
Mercilus’ efforts in Week 1 against the Chicago Bears earned him AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors. He’s lined up in different parts of the field and played 113 of 120 defensive snaps for the Texans. He will be someone the Patriots have to account for on every single play, and his performance so far this season suggests that he, not the still-recovering Watt, could be the biggest threat to stop the Patriots offense.
Join the conversation!
What players are you watching for to become “Matchup Nightmares” in Patriots-Texans Thursday night?
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. His opinions do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.