By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — If you feel like the Patriots play the Texans every other week, you’re not alone.
“I feel like we’re almost back in the division here. This Houston team is a team that we have a lot of experience with,” Bill Belichick said of New England’s AFC foe earlier this week.
It’s not quite the Patriots-Colts vibe we got back in the mid- 2000s, but the Patriots have played the Texans six times over the last five seasons (regular season and playoffs) and that doesn’t include their preseason tilt and joint practices from just a month ago. That familiarity hasn’t meant much in the way of winning for the Texans, as Tom Brady is 7-1 against them in his career.
But even if the score doesn’t always reflect it, the Texans usually play the Patriots fairly tough — at least to start. Here’s what we’ll be watching for when the two teams take the field at Gillette Stadium on Sunday:
The tight end has slowly worked his back from the groin injury he suffered last Sunday, but we’ll see if the Patriots want to risk sending him out there against the Texans.
Gronk was on the field on Wednesday but didn’t take part in practice, was limited on Thursday and then proclaimed himself “good to go” after Friday’s walkthrough on the new Gillette Stadium turf. He’s trending in the right direction, but again, the Patriots have to weigh the risk-reward of sending Gronkowski out there when he isn’t at 100 percent — a dilemma they’re all too familiar with. They may be thinking of the bigger picture and want to keep him in bubble wrap this weekend.
Even if Gronk does suit up, don’t expect him to be at full speed. When he played against the Texans in Week 3 last season, he was used primarily as a decoy in New England’s Jacoby Brissett-led offense. He could find himself in a similar role if he plays on Sunday. That makes this a great game for Dwayne Allen to step up in the passing game, but it doesn’t seem like he’s on the same page with Tom Brady.
The Pats went with a three-tight end package a handful of times last weekend with rookie Jacob Hollister making his NFL debut. Chances are we’ll see a lot more of him on Sunday.
Keeping Brady Standing Upright
It’s always important to keep the Texans’ vaunted pass rush away from Brady, but it may not be as easy on Sunday with Marcus Cannon dealing currently with a concussion in addition to knee and ankle injuries. That will thrust Cameron Fleming and LaAdrian Waddle into pivotal roles at right tackle this weekend.
As is usually the case, the New England offensive line will have their hands full with Texans Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus and a healthy J.J. Watt. Houston sacked Andy Dalton three times last Thursday in their 13-9 win over the Bengals, so they’re showing signs of rounding into shape after an embarrassing loss to the Jaguars in Week 1.
Tale Of The Tape: Patriots vs. Texans
The Texans also have a somewhat decent game plan when it comes to playing against Brady, usually sending three or four large gentlemen after the quarterback while dropping the rest into coverage. That puts a lot of pressure on the offensive line to win their 1-on-1 matchups against the likes of Clowney, Mercilus and Watt while Brady’s targets try to get open quickly. Sometimes it works, most times it doesn’t. And as you can see from Brady’s record against the Texans, it doesn’t usually lead to a Houston victory.
But we’ll see how big of a factor Cannon’s injury, along with the struggles of Nate Solder so far this season, play on Sunday. Expect a lot of short passes to James White and Dion Lewis if the offensive line isn’t up to the challenge of slowing the Texans’ pass rush.
A Rookie QB Vs. Bill Belichick
It looks like Deshaun Watson will someday be a pretty good quarterback in the NFL. But it’s a lot to ask of a young passer to go into Gillette Stadium and beat Bill Belichick’s Patriots. The head coach is 8-0 at home against rookie quarterbacks with the Patriots, and Belichick teams are 15-5 overall against rookie QBs.
Add in the fact the Patriots got a solid preview of Watson and what he has to offer during their joint practices and preseason game last month, and they should be able to handle the young passer even if he does decide to do some damage with his legs.
It’s clear Watson can escape pressure and make an opposing defense pay, as was evident when he ripped off a 49-yard touchdown scamper against the Bengals last week. He split two defenders at the line before racing past the Cincinnati secondary, using some timely blocks to find pay dirt in an otherwise ugly Thursday night affair. Belichick has made the Patriots watch that run over and over again this week, as well as everything they saw from the QB in their preseason tilt (Watson went 3-for-10 for 102 yards with 10 rushing yards on four carries in Week 2 of the fake season), so nothing Watson does on Sunday should surprise them.
“I guess that’s one thing we definitely know is he can run,” safety Devin McCourty said of Watson earlier this week. “If we don’t keep him in the pocket and try to surround him as much as possible – on a play like he had against Cincinnati, [it] is not just a one-time thing or like some great play. He has that where he can do that at any moment and any game and can do it multiple times. That’s something that I don’t think we have to go out there and let him run for 40 yards and then say, ‘Oh man, he’s fast.’ You know, I think that’s something we obviously already know and have to be prepared for.
“Obviously, knowing it and stopping it are two different things, so we’ll have to really work to that. It’s something we’ve talked about all week so far, so it’s definitely a focus of the defense,” added McCourty.
The Patriots are going to try to make the rookie beat them with his arm and force him to make quick decisions in the pocket. But if they’re not careful, they may end up on the wrong side of a highlight. They know that, and they’ll be ready.
Eliminating Big Plays
If there is anything that has hurt the Patriots defense in the first two games this season (and caused fans to rip out their hair at an impressive clip), it’s been their tendency to surrender a big play. Following their big play debacles against the Chiefs in Week 1, the New England D gave up six passing plays of 20 yards or more against the Saints last weekend.
As ESPN Boston’s Mike Reiss noted earlier this week, the unit is on pace to give up 72 passing plays of 20+ yards, up drastically from the 44 they surrendered last season.
With Stephon Gilmore still getting acclimated to defense, Eric Rowe and Jonathan Jones playing bigger roles and Malcolm Butler working through whatever he’s working through, expect a few more big plays on Sunday. Hopefully they’re of they come after the Patriots have already put the game out of reach.
Tune in to Sunday’s Patriots-Texans game on 98.5 The Sports Hub and WBZ-TV — the flagship stations of the New England Patriots. Pregame coverage begins on 98.5FM at 10am with Patriots Preview, and on WBZ-TV at 11:30am with Patriots GameDay. After the game, tune in to three hours of postgame coverage on the Sports Hub and catch Bill Belichick and Tom Brady’s press conference’s live on Patriots 5th Quarter on myTV38!