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Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: 10 things to watch vs. Texans
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Saturday night Bill Belichck's Patriots return to the scene of the celebration.
Last time Tom Brady and Co. hit the field in Houston, New England pulled off the historic comeback to secure a fifth Lombardi trophy with the overtime victory over the Falcons in Super Bowl LI.
Now, the defending championships return to NRG Stadium for the second leg of the preseason slate with the team building toward the regular season. After a competitive week of joint practice work with the Texans in West Virginia, the teams will take it up a notch in game action.
No one will mistake Saturday night's contest with February's fun, but it's football nonetheless.
Here are 10 things to watch for as the Patriots take on the Texans in Texas:
Tom Brady - The G.O.A.T sat out the preseason opener against Jacksonville but would seem likely to see his first game snaps of the summer in Houston. Brady has been the best quarterback on the field at every practice he's taken part in this summer - by far. Now he'll continue to build a rapport with his returning weapons and new targets against a solid Texans defense that put up a pretty good fight this week on the practice field. Patriots fans want to see Brady stay clean and healthy in Houston more than anything else, but seeing him connect with his targets on a few early snaps would be a nice appetizer for the fall feast of offense that's on the menu for 2017.
Debut night - Forty Patriots sat out the preseason opener. That included stars like Brady and Rob Gronkowski (who based on history may not play this week, either) as well as newcomers like Brandin Cooks, Stephon Gilmore and Rex Burkhead. Many of those 40 should make their preseason debuts in at least minimal action against the Texans. It will be a first chance to see the new faces in their new uniforms. It will be a first, tiny look at how they might fit into the mix. For fans who haven't gotten the opportunity to get to practices this summer, it is a sneak peek of what's to come. Cooks, in particular, is a guy fans should keep an eye on with his big-play ability and potential star power.
In the running - Dion Lewis, LeShun Daniels (who was injured in practice this week) and Brandon Bolden got the bulk of the work in the backfield in Jags game. Though Mike Gillislee remains sidelined with a hamstring injury, seeing how Burkhead might fit into the running back committee is worth watching. Burkhead has looked good in the passing game in practice, but seeing how he can fit into the running attack in full-contact, game-like conditions may be telling. Running backs' real values in the running game is best judged in game action, so seeing what Burkhead brings and how Lewis builds on his impressive opener could factor into how the depth chart is filled out at running back.
Defensive end - Deatrich Wise Jr. hasn't been seen since suffering a head injury against Jacksonville. Fellow rookie Derek Rivers suffered a reported season-ending knee injury in practice with Houston. The lack of depth and uncertainty at defensive end is growing more concerning by the day. It will be nice to get Trey Flowers will get his first game action of the summer. But seeing Kony Ealy do something of impact would be a big boon to the battle on the edge. Who plays on the end of the line - maybe a new face like Lawrence Guy? - and how they perform will be interesting from now straight through early-season action.
Take two - While many players sat out the opener, others took advantage of their extra reps. That was especially true of wide receiver Austin Carr and tight end Jacob Hollister. Each caught the ball well. Now, the question is whether the undrafted rookies can string together impressive games in their quest to earn surprise roster spots. Both continue to face uphill battles, but the more they perform on the game the field the better their chances of sticking around, at least on the practice squad.
Left tackle - Similar to the defensive end spot, the tackle spot is facing a lack of depth these days. Nate Solder remains out of action with an unknown injury. Same for rookie Tony Garcia. LaAdrian Waddle limped off the practice field in West Virginia and is unlikely to even be in Houston. That means Cameron Fleming will probably man the left tackle spot with the rest of the returning offensive line. After that we could see undrafted rookie Cole Croston on the left side again. Protecting Brady is the first priority of the line early, especially against an athletic, talented Texans pass rush. But figuring out who the swing tackle could be and whether the likes of Croston or Conor McDermott are roster-worthy will also be a part of the process on the line.
Special attention - Stephen Gostkowski was much better in practice this week after struggling at times last week against the Jags. The veteran kicker needs to string together good kicks to build confidence - possibly his own as well as that of those wondering whether he can bounce back from a tough 2016. Ryan Allen has been pretty inconsistent on the practice field. And the Patriots were less than impressive on either side of the return game (punts or kicks) against Jacksonville. There are still a lot of moving pieces in the kicking game in the preseason, but guys can start to establish themselves in roles and the specialists in particular can begin to lay the foundation for regular season success.
Passing thoughts - While Brady will be the focal point early on at the quarterback position, the work of his backups will also be very much worth watching. Jimmy Garoppolo shook off a slow start to shine against the Jags. He could get a few reps against higher level defenders in Houston and needs to put them to good use. Jacoby Brissett simply needs to show improvement every time he steps on the field for his limited reps as he strives to develop in his second season. Some have begun to wonder whether the second-year former third-round pick is worth keeping around. He could use a solid performance to silence his doubters.
James O'Shaughnessy - Few have been talking much about the trade addition from the Chiefs, especially after he missed some practice time to injury. But the third-year tight end has been impressive on the practice field and has a strong reputation as a special teamer. He's vying for not only the third tight end role but maybe a chance to be a surprising complementary contributor in the passing game. With the possibility that Gronkowski sits out, any reps that O'Shaughnessy might get with Brady could be huge for his future in New England.
Bounce-back effort - While some guys will be trying to string together consecutive strong preseason performances to help their chances of winning a roster spot, other guys may be in need of bounce-back performances in their battles to retain jobs in New England. That would include third-year safety Jordan Richards and second-year cornerback Cyrus Jones. Both were very much involved with allowing big-play touchdowns last week to the Jags. Each could use some positive plays to boost their stock, and maybe their confidence. The same could be true for running back D.J. Foster, who fumbled in the preseason opener. Competition is often about building on positive momentum as well as bouncing back from adversity.
Other things you'll be watching for as a Patriots fan? Let us know with a comment below! Read