By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — All offseason long, nothing but questions have surrounded the New England Patriots. Now it’s finally time to get some answers.
We won’t get all of the answers, of course, as the team will undergo many transformations between now and the end of the season — whenever that may be. But at the very least, after a Super Bowl loss and the melodramatic offseason that followed, real football in Foxboro will be a welcome sight for everybody involved.
It won’t be a cakewalk for the Patriots, though. Far from it, as the Texans are a whole lot more dangerous than their 4-12 record from last year would suggest. That’s not to say this will be an AFC Championship Game preview or anything of the sort, but if the Patriots want to start their 2018 season with a victory, it won’t come easy.
Here’s what we’re expecting when this one finally kicks off on Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium.
As much as any other year, the feeling entering 2018 is that a whole lot will be resting on the shoulders of Tom Brady. That’s always the case with most any team and pretty much every quarterback, but it’s notable this year in New England for two reasons.
For one, the Patriots’ roster in terms of offensive weapons is a tad thin. It’s not barren. Rob Gronkowski is still Rob Gronkowski. And once Julian Edelman returns, there’s hope that he’s the same player who was open on seemingly every third down from 2013-16. But in his absence, Josh McDaniels is going to have to get creative. The success or failure of that plan will depend on how well the quarterback performs.
Thriving in this game won’t be simply for Brady, which brings us to point No. 2.
Tom Brady was fortunate to make it out alive when he faced the Texans last September. Brady ended up having a phenomenal game, but the Patriots would be wise to choose a different tack when it comes to fending off the Houston pass rush this time around.
Jadeveon Clowney was a major issue in that game, recording two sacks and three total QB hits, and also scoring a touchdown on a strip-sack by Whitney Mercilus. The entire play was a bit of a nightmare for the Patriots:
The Texans recorded five sacks on the day and eight hits on Brady, along with 8.5 tackles for a loss. It was not a banner day for Dante Scarnecchia’s crew — and that was with Nate Solder in at left tackle.
Solder is obviously gone, and everybody in Foxboro will be eager to see how the new-look offensive line fares with Trent Brown stepping in on the left side and Marcus Cannon returning from injury on the right side. There will also be some shared responsibility among the running backs group, too, which will be particularly noteworthy if rookie Sony Michel is active and on the field for this game.
There’s also the unscientific theory that J.J. Watt has to have a good game against the Patriots at some point … right? He had 9.5 sacks in a six-game span in 2015 before getting shut out in sacks against New England. In 2013, he recorded six sacks in the five games prior to facing the Patriots … when he couldn’t sack Brady once. Watt recorded six sacks in the three games prior to the famed Varsity Jacket Game, in which he recorded … no sacks. One would think a player of that caliber, theoretically feeling fresh and healthy for Week 1, would represent a significant threat for this game.
Even if Watt doesn’t make an impact, it’s quite clear that the Patriots are going to have to place an added emphasis on protecting the quarterback. They got away with it last year, but any time you open the doors to the backfield like that, you generally end up walking away with a loss.
This is an area that will probably receive an inordinate amount of attention, given how many punts won’t even be returned. But it’ll nevertheless be interesting to see which player or players are employed by Bill Belichick in a punt returning role. The suspension of Edelman and departure of Danny Amendola leaves the Patriots without the two men who accounted for almost all of the team’s punt returns over the past five years. Cyrus Jones’ inability to make the roster removes the next obvious choice — though his time as punt returner proved to be more of an adventure than anything else.
Given Cordarrelle Patterson’s dynamic ability as a kick returner, he’d figure to be a candidate. But he’s returned just one punt in his pro career and only four in his collegiate career. Patrick Chung has returned three punts in his career. Rex Burkhead hasn’t returned punts in the NFL, but he did return a handful of punts in college and has returned kicks in the NFL. Phillip Dorsett has returned two punts for one yard. Riley McCarron has yet to suit up for a real NFL game.
There’s just not an experienced option to pick, so you might be safe to expect a higher number of fair catches, at least until Edelman returns or the team signs someone who can better fill the role. But as for this week, the pressure will be on whoever gets sent back to field punts. There’s a reason people in New England still shudder at the sound of Chris Harper’s name, and that’s because a muffed punt can be an absolute dagger in a tightly contested football game.
Of course, returning punts is only a consideration for the Patriots if they can actually force a punt. Which brings us to our final point.
Defense, Defense, Defense
You may remember how the season started for the Patriots’ defense a year ago. It was … not … good. At all.
In a stunning Week 1 blowout loss following a banner ceremony, the Patriots’ defense allowed Alex Smith and the Chiefs to roll for a ridiculous 537 yards and 42 points. The Patriots returned home two weeks later, only to give up 417 yards and 33 points to rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson in a narrow victory over the Texans. And the next week, the Patriots’ defense allowed Cam Newton to have his best game in years, as the Panthers gained 444 yards and scored 33 points to drop the Patriots to 2-2.
The defense clearly took a trial-and-error approach to the start of the season. And really, the team was only able to hold steady with a 2-2 record because of the dynamic offense. This year, that offense doesn’t figure to be a salvation, and so the defense really can’t afford to come out of the gates resembling the unit that started the 2017 season.
There’s reason to believe this year should show some improvement. The Patriots’ front seven is better than most people probably want to give it credit for being, with the addition of Adrian Clayborn and the integration of Derek Rivers, who missed his rookie season with a torn knee and seemingly kept busy by lifting every weight in New England. Trey Flowers is an All-Pro in the making, and Deatrich Wise has a lot of promise entering year two. And they’ll be stout in the middle, as always, with Danny Shelton, Malcom Brown, Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler.
Outside of that, we’ll see. Fifth-round linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley looked good in the preseason. Eric Rowe — still just 25 years old — has a defined role as a starting corner. Stephon Gilmore should be able to avoid the learning curve that slowed his start last year. But overall, this is a defense that is coming off a disastrous Super Bowl performance — both in terms of execution and coaching.
Facing one of the best wide receivers in the NFL in DeAndre Hopkins and a quarterback who lit it up in his trip to Foxboro last September serves as a rather difficult opening test for the Patriots’ defense.