The Patriots look to double their win total vs a Texans team seeking the same outcome. After a hard-fought defeat to the Buccaneers last week, the Patriots look to take on a Texans team reeling from three straight losses, including the 40-0 smackdown against the Bills last week. It will be a battle of rookie QB’s when the two teams meet up, but how each rookie gained their starting job couldn’t be any more different.
Mac Jones beat out incumbent Cam Newton to win the starting gig coming out of training camp. Texans Rookie Davis Mills (Stanford) was picked in the third round with the Texans’ first pick of the draft to largely play backup to Tyrod Taylor. However, when Taylor injured his hamstring in week 2 against the Browns, it forced Mills into action. A week after holding a living legend to mortal numbers, the Patriots defense will again need to be active on Sunday to help the team win with a skeleton crew of a roster making the trip.
We’ll again stick with last week’s iteration of game preview, using the “who has the advantage when…” style. So, without further ado.
The Patriots Run the Ball
The Patriots are suddenly a team struggling to move the ball on the ground. Don’t expect that to change this week as the only returning starter along the offensive line is center David Andrews. The Patriots leading rusher a week ago was WR Nelson Agholor, who had a long of 4 yards. Collectively, the Pats totaled 8 carries for -1 yard on the ground.
That’s not a typo, a Bill Belichick coached had -1 rushing yard for an entire game. A week before, the Patriots had 49 yards on 17 carries. This has been a downward trend since the season opener against the Dolphins for the Pats. Behind a patchwork offensive line, the work won’t be getting any easier for the Patriots’ running backs.
The silver lining? The Texans have been extremely porous against the run, allowing an average of 137 yards per game to their opponents with an extremely generous 4.5 yards per carry average. While the Texans boast an active linebacking corps, the defensive line has been quiet through the first quarter of the NFL season. The lack of production among their down linemen has allowed the linebackers more than their fair share of chances to pad stats with tackles multiple yards downfield, which is exactly what has occurred.
Despite the Texans’ troubles defending the run, it won’t be an easy day in the office for the Patriots rushing attack. Expect this to be a difficult endeavor to get the ground game going. Damien Harris and the other Patriot’s running backs were having a difficult time executing the Patriots rushing attack behind the starting offensive line, it won’t get any easier behind the patchwork starting five against the Texans.
Advantage: Patriots (somehow)
The Patriots Pass the Ball
McDaniels embraced Mac Jones and his strengths last week against the Bucs. Facing a strong front seven but an injured secondary, the Pats spread it out, often going with three wide receiver sets. These personnel groupings not only plays to Jones’ strengths in the short to intermediate passing game, but it helps the rookie identify defensive play calls before the snap.
The Patriots would be wise to utilize this game plan again against the Texans. With Mac playing behind four new starters up front, putting him in the gun and letting him identify his mismatches before the snap will allow him to get the ball out quick and avoid getting killed. If the Patriots’ running game falters at all, expect them to replace it with a quick passing game to keep the offense in manageable situations.
The Texans’ secondary is largely comprised of “remember them” names. While they may have some notable names on their roster, the Texans’ passing defense has been middle of the pack. They have allowed an average of 260 yards passing per game but have buoyed that performance with timely takeaways and stiff red zone passing defense.
The Texans have allowed 6 passing touchdowns while collecting 5 interceptions. Safety Justin Reid leads the team with 2, while CB’s Vernon Hargreaves III and Lonnie Johnson Jr., and linebacker Christian Kirksey have one apiece.
The Texans pass rush starts with hybrid defensive end/linebacker Whitney Mercilus who has collected 3 sacks on the season. The team has a total of 7 sacks to this point in the season. Outside of Mercilus, these sacks are largely designed pressures and not one on one pass rush wins. Don’t be surprised if some of these schemes and games fool the Pats’ backup o-linemen and we see Mac on the ground more than we’d like.
It’ll all come down to protecting Mac. The Texans will know the Pats want to get the ball out of his hand quickly and would be smart to clog the underneath passing lanes. If so, Mac will need to have time to work through his progressions. If the Pats can afford him that time, then the passing offense will have success. If not, it could be a frustrating day in the office. A big game from the tight ends might be in store if the Pts can consistently get them lined up on the Texans linebackers.
The Texans Run the Ball
The Texans have been anything but a dominant rushing team this season. Paced by a veteran group (and I mean veteran with a capital V), the team has gained 332 yards on the ground. For comparison’s sake, the Pats have 274. The Texans had 48 rushing yards last week against the Bills, and it wasn’t because the game got out of hand quickly. The Texans trailed 16-0 at the half and 19-0 after three. Still, plenty of reason to stay balanced on offense.
The week before, the Texans rushed for 42 yards against the Panthers. Almost half of the Texans rushing yards (160) came in week 1 against the Jaguars. The Texans again were productive on the ground through the first half against the Browns before QB Tyrod Taylor got injured. The loss of a dynamic runner at the QB position has made the Texans run game one-dimensional.
Just as a porous Texans defense might be the medicine the Patriots rushing game needs to get back on track, facing the Patriots defense might do the same for a struggling Texans attack. The Patriots rank 20th in rush defense thus far into the season. Dont’a Hightower hasn’t been the same player since returning and was leapfrogged by Kyle Van Noy last week in playtime. The loss of Ja’Whaun Bentley hasn’t helped the Patriots rush defense either.
Bentley is questionable to play against the Texans while Jamie Collins is set to make his (third?) Patriots debut. The return of both Collins and Bentley could mean a bolstered Patriots rushing defense. At the very least, it should help keep guys fresh with a more active rotation.
A week after Belichick putting on a coaching clinic against one of the most talented offenses in the league, I have a feeling he keeps his defense on track with a resurgent effort against a struggling Texans run game. The best thing the Pats can do is overplay the run and force a rookie QB to try to beat them through the air.
For a game the features the two franchises planet-sized-defender-of-the-middle Vince Wilfork played for, it’ll be a game lacking in run defense.
The Texans Pass the Ball
Rookie Davis Mills was highly touted as a draft prospect. NFL evaluators loved his arm strength and ability to spread the ball around along with his above-average escape-ability. However, the negatives from his college tape have translated too easily to the NFL game. He frequently waited for the sure thing to be open, often leaving receivers waiting on his ball to arrive, and tended to be occasionally erratic with his accuracy.
Those negative traits are reflected in his professional stat line: 38/67 for 357 yards, 2 touchdowns against 5 interceptions while taking 8 sacks. The NFL level happens at a much faster speed than college, waiting for a sure thing to happen in the NFL is very rarely going to occur. His high sacks total in two and a half games shows he’s still waiting for his guys to break open while the interception total is reflective of his sporadic accuracy and receivers having to wait on the ball.
A week after making TB12 double clutch and doubt what he was seeing post-snap, the Pats defense should be able to tie this rookie’s brain into knots. Even with the loss of Jalen Mills (hamstring), the Patriots’ secondary should be able to scheme up confusing and effective coverages.
WR Brandin Cooks is the Texans leading receiver by a large margin (Cooks: 369 yards, next leading receiver: 73 yards) and should draw attention from CB1 J.C. Jackson or from a rat concept with slot corner Jonathan Jones and safety Devin McCourty over the top. Belichick is the king of making teams play left-handed and it’s never been so apparent as the Texans unbalanced passing game.
The Texans’ offensive line has long been an Achilles heel and continues to be despite significant investment. Patriots pass rushers Matt Judon and Josh Uche, along with rotating pieces Van Noy, Hightower, Collins, and Chase Winovich should all find success in one-on-one matchups. If the Pats can get Mills to second guess what he’s seeing and hold the ball the pass rush should have a VERY productive game.
The Patriots’ third unit finally got on track last week (outside of one Matt Slater penalty). They threw everything they had at the Bucs to try to gain an extra possession, but the Bucs handled it extremely well. I don’t think the Pats will be getting too exotic on special teams unless the game flow dictates it late in the matchup. Gunner Olszewski has had a quiet start to the season before a modest return last week, he might be due to break one. Nick Folk has been listed on the injury report since Week 2 but has yet to miss any time. He has been consistent and came ever so close to turning in a snow-bowl-esque kick last week in monsoon conditions.
Belichick showed last week he still is the best defensive mind to ever don a headset. His work this week should be quite a bit easier than going against his understudy of 20 years. However, the best don’t let up against inferior opponents. Belichick knows and embraces that aspect of the game, often showing clips of Kobe Bryant and Tiger Woods during team meetings to accentuate how the best never is content with simply winning, they want to dominate and embarrass their opponents. Belichick should channel that mentality in running a second consecutive coaching clinic.
McDaniels has been on the receiving end of quite a bit of criticism. None of which has been deserved. He has quietly and steadily been focusing the game plan on Mac Jones’ strengths and will continue to set the rookie up for success. After seeing how disastrous the downfield passing game could be against the Saints, Mac was happy to stay on script against the Bucs and had the best game of his young career. Hopefully, the Pats don’t need to break out Jakobi Meyers for two pass attempts this game.
Defensive play-caller Steve Belichick has been steady as long as the cameras aren’t on him….
It’s a dome. Unless the Chargers and Raiders decide to somehow get involved and postpone it, it shouldn’t be an issue. The Texans field is a natural grass surface that has come under criticism in seasons past but thus far in the young season has been in top shape.
The Texans average 16.8 points per game, the Pats? 17.8. Seems a bit too straightforward. Mac Jones and the offense finally showed signs of progression last week in the red zone, going 2-3 but scoring points on every trip. The slow conversion of these trips into touchdowns is a welcome sign for the offense. The Patriots defense and special teams will need to help the offense in the scoring department, and I think they end up getting it done.
Mills will turn the ball over; the Pats just need to make them count. This is a game that has a distinct Patriots advantage in every aspect yet somehow feels will be ugly…or this is a game where the Pats outclass an inferior opponent despite having the odds against them and win going away.
Pats win 24-6.