After a brief 217 day absence, the Patriots play their first meaningful game since the Super Bowl this Sunday. Opening the year in Foxboro’s Gillette Stadium, they’ll be hosting a Bill O’Brien-led Texans team for the fifth time in the last four years, six if you include the 2017 preseason game and joint practices from that week.
Featuring an electric young quarterback in Deshaun Watson, the Texans are coming off of a lost year when seemingly their entire starting lineup was injured. They didn’t have a first or second round pick because of their last two quarterbacks, using the one to trade up for Watson and the two to dump Brock Osweiler’s awful contract. Despite those woes, the Texans are always a tough matchup – especially when healthy on their defense.
Scouting the Texans’ offense
Belichick’s Patriots have historically dominated Bill O’Brien’s Texans, as well as other coaches from his tree. But when preparing for the 2018 Texans, it’s fair to say that only the game film from 2017 seems to be relevant, at least for their offense. Watson stole the starting job from an undeserving Tom Savage halfway through week 1 last year and looked like he belonged immediately. Watson was well on his way to winning offensive rookie of the year before he went down with a freak right ACL tear in practice in November.
Sunday’s matchup will be just over ten months since the injury. Based on his preseason, Watson didn’t look limited, but it’s important to factor in the human aspect of injury. While Watson dazzled with his mobility with plays like these...
I wouldn’t expect to see a whole lot of plays like this on Sunday. Don’t get me wrong, Watson is still mobile and the Patriots are right to treat him like one with the scout team quarterbacks, but I would be shocked if Watson approached the many out of the pocket passes and eight rushes that he had against the Patriots last year in his first real NFL game back.
If I were the Patriots, I would embrace what de-facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores has done with the Patriots defense in the preseason and send more pressure at Watson. The Texans’ offensive line was terrible in 2017 and the only member of the line that started week 3 that will start on Sunday is center Nick Martin. But to be honest, the replacements that the Texans brought in don’t inspire that much confidence.
At left tackle, they are starting Julien Davenport, a second year project fourth round tackle that was pretty poor in spot starts last year. At right tackle is Seantrel Henderson, an old Bills foe that hasn’t started a game at tackle since 2015 because of Crohn’s disease and all the weed he had to smoke to manage the pain. And they’ll start two guys at guard that don’t really scare anyone in Zach Fulton and Senio Kelemete. The Patriots will be able to get pressure with a four-man rush, but they should be able send extra guys because...
Defending the skill players
...without the available draft capital, the Texans didn’t upgrade their offensive skill players, returning a group of DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, Ryan Griffin, and Lamar Miller. With apologies to Sammie Coates, Tyler Ervin, Jordan Akins, and Keke Coutee, the Texans’ fifth offensive skill player should not present an obstacle to the Patriots’ defense. A game plan of the 6’1 Eric Rowe with the safety shaded to his side on Hopkins, and Gilmore on Will Fuller makes a lot of sense, leaving the other guys with winnable matchups.
For the Texans offense, a lot hinges on how good Watson will be and how much of a threat he is as a mobile QB just ten months removed from a surgery that usually takes a full year to recover full explosiveness. The Patriots couldn’t have done a worse job with Watson last year, but they return with an improved and more athletic defense that should be up to the task.
Scouting the Texans’ defense
Let’s talk about the pressure
Despite having missed most of the last few years with injuries, the face of the Texans’ franchise is still J.J. Watt, who at his peak was clearly the best defensive player in the NFL. And while he isn’t the same monster that he once was, he’s still among the best in the game with Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus feasting off of the double teams he still draws.
Last year, the Patriots struggled mightily to contain the dangerous trio in their one-on-one matchups. Brady was sacked five times, including a fumble-six forced by Mercilus on a clean win against Solder:
Even when the Patriots completed some nice plays, Brady was getting hit, and hit hard – nine times to be exact. Here are the four non-sack hits on Brady from that game:
This was probably Brady's best throw last year. Clowney and McKinney destroy Thuney and Solder with a stunt and both Mercilus and Watt draw double teams on the right.— Tian (@tianrossi) September 6, 2018
The Texans D-Line is so dangerous. Expect a heavy dose of Develin and Allen on Sunday. pic.twitter.com/IG107bRDAT
This is the same exact play and protection with McKinney and Mercilus switched. That kind of pressure is way too easy against a 6 man protection. Thank God that Tom Brady is Tom Brady. pic.twitter.com/5KcE9nWlLo— Tian (@tianrossi) September 6, 2018
On each of those four plays, the Texans run some sort of stunt and get a hit in on Brady. It’s on the left tackle and guard in the first three clips and over the center on the fourth clip. This kind of quick pressure generated by four players against a 6-man protection is just unreal and speaks to the talent of the Texans’ defensive linemen. On four of the biggest plays of the game, the Patriots felt compelled to have their most talented skill player chip in protection, and despite that, pressure made it through.
The Texans have made a change at defensive coordinator with Vrabel off coaching the Titans, but the scheme should remain the same. Romeo Crennel (who was also the defensive coordinator in Texas from 2014-16) runs the same kind of schemes and Belichick is obviously well acquainted with his strategy as well. I expect the Patriots to be much better prepared for the Texans’ pass rush.
The Patriots’ top three wide receivers in that game were Chris Hogan, Brandin Cooks, and Danny Amendola, with Phillip Dorsett only chipping in with seven snaps as the fourth wideout. Hogan, Dorsett, and Cordarrelle Patterson is obviously a step back from that trio and I suspect that the Patriots will adjust accordingly. In last year’s game, James Develin and Dwayne Allen played a combined 50% of defensive snaps. This Sunday that number should be closer to 100%. The Patriots need to take advantage of Mercilus and Clowney covering and playing the run in their base defense.
The Patriots are still going to have to chip Watt and Clowney on the edges and ideally, they would prefer that guy to be Allen. I would also bet on the Patriots inserting some tight end screens or phantom blocks into the game plan to take advantage if the Texans get too aggressive.
For the rest of the Texans’ defense, the Patriots should have an advantage against the secondary, but it has improved over recent years. One common theme from the Texans over the last decade or so has been that they could never have quality safety play. From Danieal Manning to D.J. Swearinger to Andre Hal to Quintin Demps to Eddie Pleasant to Corey Moore... you get the picture, they have all been mediocre fill-ins at best.
This offseason, they finally realized the position to be a glaring weakness and signed Tyrann Mathieu, while moving back long time cornerback Kareem Jackson to safety to shore up the position. It will be very interesting to see how those two match up against Gronkowski and James White/Rex Burkhead because both of their starting linebackers (McKinney and Zach Cunningham) can’t cover for shit.
Johnathan Joseph is somehow still starting for them at CB along with Kevin Johnson and ex-Jag slot guy Aaron Colvin. Not a group that is going to shut you down, but a group that has seen Brady many times and could pose a problem to one of the weakest and shallowest wide receiver positional groups that Brady has ever had.
My two cents on the Patriots offense: heavy on the ground game and bigger personnel to set up play-action passing. While the Texans mostly relied on a four-man rush in obvious passing situations, according to PFF they were the tied for the most aggressive team in the NFL when it came to blitzing on 1st down, making them even more susceptible to this strategy.
It seems criminal to type out 1,500 words and not mention the special teams battle so I guess I’ll put a little blurb in here. The Texans have consistently been a bottom-ten special teams positional group and they fired Patriots special teams legend Larry Izzo as their coach in the offseason. It’s too early to tell if there will be improvements, but the Patriots should be able to comfortably outplay them in that aspect of the game. I’m excited to see Cordarrelle Patterson in the return game.
All in all, the Texans are no pushover, and represent a real threat to the Patriots in their home opener. That being said, I think that the Patriots learn from their first meeting with Watson and win and cover on Sunday. I think that there will be plenty of scoring drives for both sides but I don’t see how they have the second highest over/under of the week. For all of the betting men out there, I’ll take Patriots (-6.5) and the under (51).
Week 1 prediction: Patriots 27 Texans 20