The Patriots welcome the Texans into Foxboro on Sunday for the 2018 regular season opener. It will be one of the best matchups of the opening weekend as two of the best teams in the AFC clash in their first game of the season. This matchup has been rather lopsided since the Texans entered the NFL as an expansion team in 2002. They have faced off 10 times in that span, with the Texans only win coming in 2010. New England has routed Houston in nearly every other matchup that the two teams have had. However, this year may prove to be different as the Texans come into Gillette with one of the most talented and experienced rosters that they have ever had. The Patriots will have their work cut out for them as they face a Houston team that nearly stole a win from them a year ago in Foxboro.
Over the past few years, the Patriots have routinely gotten off to a slow start, even if they opened up the season with a win. If this trend continues, the Texans may be able to take advantage of it and sneak in a win against the defending AFC Champions.
Offensively the Patriots are going to need to be both creative and efficient. With only four wide receivers on their roster (they started with three, but they bumped Riley McCarron up from the practice squad after Duke Dawson was placed on injured reserve), the Patriots will need to rely on their diverse skill sets to defeat a highly talented Texans defense. In the meeting between these two teams last season, Tom Brady relied heavily on Rob Gronkowski and Brandin Cooks. With Cooks’ departure, the burden will fall heavier on Gronkowski’s shoulders, which will not be easy considering that the Texans will likely double cover him as best as they can. Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett will be crucial in moving the heat off Gronk and threatening Houston enough that they need to use zone or one-on-one man coverage to deal with Gronk. None of this will be easy, especially when you consider the Texans defensive backs. Tyrann Mathieu and Jonathan Joseph will be a tough pair to beat, which will make Tom Brady’s life much more difficult.
The Patriots running backs will be crucial to the team’s offensive gameplan. First and foremost, they will need to run the ball well. The Texans front seven is scary with JJ Watt, Whitney Mercilus, Zach Cunningham, and Jadeveon Clowney. Running the ball will not be an easy task. However, if the Patriots cannot establish a run game, then their entire offense may collapse. The Texans defensive line is good enough to get to the quarterback without linebacker help. This means that if the Patriots cannot establish an intimidating run game, the Texans will be able to drop extra players into coverage, allowing Brady both little time and tiny windows to throw into. Establishing a run game will be critical to help force the Texans to keep their linebackers, which will then take pressure off of the Patriots receivers.
In addition, the Patriots running backs will crucial parts of the pass blocking unit. Despite JJ Watt’s incredible skill and pedigree, he has never been successful against the Patriots. This is due to proper scheming and running backs who help chip Watt and double team him to prevent him from getting to Brady. Jeremy Hill will likely play a huge role in this situation, as he appeared to be an impressive pass protector in camp and the preseason. The Patriots may use a number of two-back sets, which will allow them to chip Watt with one back, and take on the Texans linebackers with the other.
Defensively the Patriots are in much better shape than they were when they played the Texans last season. At that point in 2017, the Patriots defensive backs were historically bad; they ended up allowing the rookie Deshaun Watson to throw for 301 yards and two touchdowns. It was an utterly pathetic performance that saw players completely unsure of what to do with themselves. That does not seem to be the case this year, as players such as Stephon Gilmore are starting to understand the process in New England.
New England should have relative success against the Texans passing game. Naturally, DeAndre Hopkins will be nearly impossible to stop completely, as he is one of the most talented receivers in the NFL. However, the Patriots will have the advantage against every other Texans wide receiver, such as Will Fuller and Bruce Ellington. The Patriots have significant depth at defensive back, so they should be able to find a consistent rotation to keep the Texans in check.
In last year’s meeting, the Patriots were relatively successful against the run, holding Lamar Miller to 56 yards on 14 carries. New England should be even better against the run this year thanks to the addition of Danny Shelton and the return of Dont’a Hightower. Shelton should be able to help clog up the middle in the way that Alan Branch was meant to last season. Hightower should be able to create pressure up the middle and seal the edge in a way that Cassius Marsh was utterly incapable of doing last season.
Ja’Whaun Bentley’s play will also be a key to watch for in this game. The Patriots may have him out on third down, as he appeared to be the team’s best coverage linebacker in the preseason. With Hightower likely rushing the quarterback in situations like that, Bentley will be tasked with covering either the Texans tight ends or Miller out of the backfield. Either way, this will be an important role in preventing the Texans from converting third downs and extending drives.
Most importantly, however, will be containing Deshaun Watson. In last season’s meeting, he finished with eight carries for 41 yards, torching the Patriots with his feet. Keeping him contained in the pocket will be absolutely vital to the Patriots having success on defense. With their new and improved pass rush that includes Adrian Clayborn, Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise, and Derek Rivers, the Patriots have a very good chance of preventing Watson from making big plays with his feet. In addition, adding Hightower into that pass rush mix may help the Patriots get multiple QB pressures and sacks on Watson. However, Wise and Rivers have both shown a tendency to over-pursue at times, which could lead to Watson slipping out of the backfield and into open space. The Patriots need to prevent this at all costs.
Despite media portrayals, the Patriots do in fact have enough weapons to defeat the Texans on Sunday. Their defense is markedly better now than it was at this time last year, with Hightower being injured and the defensive backs playing like utter crap. They should be able to have success against a Houston offense that is still getting back up to speed under Watson. The Patriots offense may not have any stud receivers, but they have enough diverse talent to beat the Texans with creativity and tricky personnel groups. However, despite all that, it is reasonable to expect that the Patriots may come out of the gate slow, and they will not be able to keep up with a high flying Texans team. This was a game on the schedule that I predicted that the Patriots would drop, and I stand by that prediction.
Until next time – B$