BOSTON (CBS) — Like Bill Belichick said in his Wednesday presser, the Texans are beginning to feel like an AFC East opponent. And it’s not because they can’t find a quarterback.
Still, like the Dolphins, Bills, and Jets in recent years (decades?), the Texans haven’t had much good fortune at the QB spot. But rookie Deshaun Watson is out to turn things around, and maybe give Houston an offense that it can be proud of next to its typically stout defense. Just don’t expect his breakthrough to come against Bill Belichick in his third career game.
Nonetheless, the Texans have other players who could make an impact on Sunday at Gillette Stadium, some of which come into the game relatively unheralded. Everyone already knows J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, and Whitney Mercilus can cause serious problems up front and that DeAndre Hopkins needs to draw added attention for the Patriots secondary keep him from burning them with big plays. If Belichick can pull a Belichick and neutralize those guys, it could open up the field for others to affect the game in unexpected ways.
That said, here are some lesser-known Texans players that you should know about ahead of the game against the Patriots on Sunday. If you read last week’s edition, you learned more about the Saints’ defensive rookies – before Tom Brady shredded them.
Zach Cunningham, LB
Bill Belichick actually met with Cunningham before the draft, but would have had to trade up in order to draft the rookie out of Vanderbilt. The coach probably loves the kid’s versatility.
Cunningham has earned an “above average” 80.9 grade on Pro Football Focus through two weeks, playing the second-most snaps of all Texans linebackers and ranking second among all rookies at the position. He filled in well for the suspended Brian Cushing last Thursday against the Bengals, including an 81.6 coverage grade. He was able to track down Bengals wideout Alex Erickson in the flat for a tackle and was targeted just twice out of his 27 snaps while covering pass-catchers.
The 6-foot-3, 234-pound Cunningham has the size to cover someone like Rob Gronkowski, but it’s likely he mans the middle of the field and often targets the Patriots’ pass-catching backs. It will be interesting to see how Bill O’Brien uses him in his attempts to slow Tom Brady down.
D.J. Reader, NT
Up front, the Texans are just outrageous. Watt was spectacular in Week 2 against the Bengals, despite not registering a sack, and Clowney and Mercilus have had slower starts but are always dangerous as pass rushers. If Belichick can find a way to limit those three, second-year nose tackle Reader could be the one with the opportunities to make things happen.
At 6-foot-3 and 340 pounds, Reader is mostly a big body who clogs up the middle against the run. His 83.1 run defense grade from PFF so far is higher than his 80.6 overall grade. The former fifth-round pick out of Clemson has made the most of his opportunities so far and could continue to wreak havoc if the interior of the Patriots’ offensive line isn’t on top of their game.
Expect Reader to mostly be a factor in the run game, so it may be wise for fantasy owners to sit Mike Gillislee this week. If Brady and the offense stall with plays up the middle, Reader could be the one causing the slowdown.
Braxton Miller, WR
Hopkins remains one of the NFL’s elite wide receivers, and Watson knows it. That’s why he’s gotten a whopping 29 targets through the first two games of the season. But it won’t be a winning strategy to continue to target Hopkins that much, especially if he’s being double-teamed on every play like you might expect – so it will be key for Miller to take some of that pressure off.
Miller has not gotten many opportunities so far this season. He’s been targeted just four times in two games, making two catches for 10 yards. But that’s while playing 126 snaps, easily the second-most among all Texans wideouts, so O’Brien obviously believes in Miller as a No. 2 next to Hopkins.
It’s imperative that Watson looks Miller’s way more often – anyone’s way, really – because he won’t be able to hit Hopkins down the field 15 times with the way the Pats will cover him. If the Texans offense is going to have a sniff of success against the Patriots on Sunday, Miller has to get involved.