…Credit LB Kyle Van Noy for initiating the first Patriots big play of 2018. While he didn't directly cause Texans QB Deshaun Watson to fumble inside his own red zone, Van Noy's penetration into the backfield made Watson think a split-second too long about whether his should keep his read-option handoff to RB Lamar Miller or let Miller take it.
That hesitation, therefore, indirectly caused the sloppy exchange between Watson and Miller. LB Dont'a Hightower then followed up the middle to find himself in the right spot to pounce on the loose ball. Van Noy and DT Malcom Brown surrounded Hightower to ensure no Texans were able to rip the ball away from their teammate.
…RB Rex Burkhead had himself a solid game as a rusher with the football, and would have produced more as a receiver had QB Tom Brady not overshot Burkhead on the play immediately following Hightower's fumble recovery.
Brady was in the shotgun with a trips left and Burkhead lined up as the lone receiver to Brady's right of formation. At the snap, Burkhead ran a crisp route. He faked an in-cut at five yards, which fooled ILB Zach Cunningham and gave Burkhead a couple of steps' advantage as he raced to the goal line. Brady's pass sailed over Burkhead, however. Should have been an easy completion for a touchdown.
…New England's first penalty of the season was called against LG Joe Thuney, and it seemed unfair. Texans OLB Whitney Mercilus jumped toward the line of scrimmage while hovering over Thuney, appearing to simulate a snap, and that's what caused Thuney to move early. Referee Tony Corrente's crew should have flagged the Texans, but mistakenly penalized Thuney.
…Brady quickly atoned for his misfire to Burkhead by throwing a rope of a back-shoulder pass to TE Rob Gronkowski, who was being double-covered by Houston as he ran to the front pylon on the left of formation. Gronk made a great adjustment on the ball and a fantastic catch before keeping both feet in bounds to finish the scoring play.
Cunningham must have known he had safety help coming over the top, so, instead of trying to match Gronk stride-for-stride, he would have been better off letting Gronk have a step on him in order to be in position to defend the back-shoulder. The safety coming over would still have been in place to defend a longer pass.
But because both defenders were even or in front of Gronk, Brady was able to place the ball behind Gronk without fear of it being intercepted. Only Gronk could make that catch, and he did.
…Rookie LB Ja'Whaun Bentley saw a lot of first-half action in his regular season Patriots debut, and he appeared to get away with a mistake in pass coverage early on. Bentley and safety/co-captain Patrick Chung were working a zone against TE Ryan Griffin as he ran a seam pattern. Both Bentley and Chung stayed put initially as Griffin ran between them and turned his route to an in-pattern.
Bentley then reacted by dropping to chase Griffin, who would have made a big first-down catch had he just kept running downfield. Watson's throw was long because he saw the busted coverage, but Griffin didn't and just ran his designed pattern.
It's always difficult to say with certainty what a player's responsibility is without knowing the game plan, but given Chung's veteran status and Bentley's reaction, it appears as if the rookie was at fault on the play. Although it's possible Chung was the guilty party by not dropping further back himself (head coach Bill Belichick was seen talking to Chung on the bench right afterward). Thankfully for them, the Texans couldn't connect and had to punt.
…Malcom Brown should have been credited with a safety when he wrapped up and brought down Watson in the end zone on the next series. Brown did a good job of beating the right guard and forcing his way into the backfield to get to Watson. The QB was in Brown's grasp and falling to the ground as he threw the ball at the feet of an eligible Texans receiver. By that point, though, the whistle should have been blown. Corrente's crew let it play out too long, allowing Watson to avoid the 2-point mistake.
…Brady's first INT of the season was clearly a result of his pass (intended for RB James White cutting short across the middle) being tipped at the line of scrimmage.
…On White's first touchdown of 2018, it looked as if Houston's defensive backfield was unclear pre-snap about whether the cornerback or safety should be responsible for White coming out of the backfield. TE Dwayne Allen's route into the end zone drew both defenders with him at first, before the cornerback realized that White was uncovered in the flat around the 10-yard line. White made the easy dump-off catch from Brady before easily eluding the corner to dive over the goal line.
…CB Stephon Gilmore started the Texans game off strong. Covering Houston's top receiver, DeAndre Hopkins, Gilmore provided tight man-to-man coverage in the first half and did a wonderful job of breaking up a long pass to Hopkins in the early second quarter. By halftime, Hopkins only had two catches for an average of barely 10 yards. Gilmore would have his issues with Hopkins later on, but for the most part, he marked the receiver well.
…It was nice to see New England's front seven get pressure on Watson without having to blitz much, if at all. DE Deatrich Wise's second-quarter sack was a perfect illustration of this, as Wise came off the edge against the left tackle and beat him cleanly to bring down Watson for a loss.
Linebacker coach Brian Flores, who's now the de facto defensive coordinator for New England, used a wide variety of personnel groupings in his front seven (or front six, as was often the case because the Patriots played considerable nickel and dime packages). Those fresh legs and different combinations were effective in making Watson uncomfortable in the pocket for most of the afternoon.
…Back to Gilmore for a moment. He made a tremendous interception of Watson that demonstrates how much more comfortable he is with this defense than he was a year ago at this time. Playing 10 yards off the line of scrimmage from Hopkins, Gilmore was on the left side of the defensive formation, where he normally lines up. CB Eric Rowe was on the right matched up against WR Vyncint Smith.
At the snap, Hopkins ran a deep crossing pattern, but as Gilmore backpedaled, he recognized that he had a pair of safeties in the middle of the field to account for Hopkins. Smith, meantime, ran a fly route against Rowe. Those two players appeared to be all alone downfield, so, Watson took his chances by throwing the deep ball. However. Gilmore sped from the other side and caught up to Rowe and Smith just as the ball was arriving.
Funny thing is, the ball was a bit underthrown, and Rowe would likely have made the pick himself without Gilmore's help. Great job of recognition and athleticism by Gilmore, though – something he might not have been able to pull off last September when he was a newcomer to this defense.
…Gronk made another phenomenal catch just before halftime that, had this been 2017, would likely have been ruled incomplete because of the wording of the rules regarding catches last year. That convoluted language has since been amended to a simpler, more understandable version – essentially, you know a catch when you see one – and Gronk's juggling effort against another double-team was a prime example.
Yes, the ball moved a bit, but he never lost control or possession of the ball as he came to the ground. The Texans were right in trying to get the play reviewed, but New England's offense was too quick to line up and run another play before Houston could get the attention of Corrente's crew. The play never got reviewed, but likely would have stood as called anyway.
…Can't end this first half of film study without mentioning WR Phillip Dorsett. He arrived last September in a trade with Indy and it took a while for him to make any sort of impact on this offense. After a year in the program, including a full offseason in Foxborough, Dorsett had a good summer and, when the Patriots needed him to step up in the absence of Julian Edelman, he did so.
Last year, Dorsett made plays now and then downfield, but often couldn't hold onto otherwise catchable passes. He lacked consistency. Against Houston, different story, as we witnessed toward the end of the half when the Patriots scored for a third time.
Dorsett looked like a player much more confident in his role, and the more Brady looked his way, the more confident both he and his quarterback became with one another.
Dorsett's half culminated with his first TD grab of the season. It was a brilliant play design. Originally, he was in the slot right, with Gronk flanking him. Before the snap, though, Dorsett motioned to the left side, where WRs Chris Hogan and Riley McCarron were in a tight bunch. Dorsett joined them from a step or two behind in the backfield. Dorsett's man, CB Kevin Johnson, followed, a clear indication of man-to-man coverage.
At the snap, Hogan and McCarron both ran short routes along the goal line, which cleared out the rest of the end zone on that side of the field. Dorsett ran about eight yards into the end zone, faked like he was headed inside, which Johnson bought, then darted to the wide open outside, toward the back corner. Brady read it the whole way and made the easy toss for the score.
The Patriots are going to need these kinds of contributions from Dorsett throughout the season, but particularly while Edelman sits out this first month.
3rd & 4th Quarters
…Running back Jeremy Hill was having a great start to his Patriots career. He ran well in the first half, averaging exactly seven yards on three carries, and he blocked a Houston punt.
His season may now be in jeopardy after a collision with teammate James Develin. After Texans safety Tyrann Mathieu recovered a Gronkowski fumble near midfield, Hill had Mathieu in his grasp. Develin came over to assist with a diving effort, but inadvertently struck Hill on the right side of his leg, twisting Hill's knee awkwardly.
…New England's o-line did a commendable job protecting Brady for most of the day. It wasn't until late in the third quarter that Houston managed to disrupt a Brady pass. That happened when DE J.J. Watt beat right tackle LaAdrian Waddle cleanly with a rip move on a four-man Texans rush. Watt struck Brady's arm as he was letting go of the football to force an incompletion.
Waddle had been rotating at the position with starter Marcus Cannon, who's still not fully recovered from a left calf injury suffered this summer. Left tackle Trent Brown and the Cannon/Waddle combination fared well, though, for the most part, against Watt, DE Jadeveon Clowney, and OLB Whitney Mercilus.
…Brady was sacked just twice in the game, both times in the fourth quarter. Nose tackle D.J. Reader blew past center David Andrews on the first one to bring Brady down for a 7-yard loss. Looked like Andrews and right guard Shaq Mason misunderstood which one of them was supposed to take responsibility for Reader. Neither Patriot committed to blocking Reader at the snap, which allowed him to penetrate virtually unscathed into the backfield.
…Again, a simple four-man rush by New England led to a sack of Watson. In the fourth quarter, it was DE Trey Flowers with an individual move to get around the right tackle that allowed him to bring down Watson for a loss.
…Watt read the snap perfectly on Brady's second sack, which allowed Watt to get to Brady by having a split-second's advantage on Waddle.
…Newly promoted practice squad receiver/returner Riley McCarron had difficulty as the primary punt returner Sunday. His decision-making, specifically, was what got him into trouble. He called for fair catches most of the time, and those were instances where it looked as if he had room to make an effort to return the kicks. The one time he didn't fair catch was the one which looked like Houston cover men were right on top of him. Not surprisingly, that was the one late in the fourth quarter when McCarron mishandled the ball and Houston recovered, leading eventually to their final touchdown of the day.
McCarron must work on his field awareness in these situations, but it must be stressed that this was his first time ever appearing in a regular season NFL game.
…Gilmore clearly held Hopkins on the play which saw Gilmore flagged for the first time this year. Gilmore admitted as much afterward that he was guilty of holding Hopkins on that play. A few plays later, Gilmore received the same penalty, and that, too, looked warranted, if unnecessary by Gilmore, as the play was to the opposite side of the field.
…Kudos to the kicking triumvirate of Stephen Gostkowski, Ryan Allen, and Joe Cardona. The kicker made all of his field goals and extra points thanks to on-the-mark snapping by Cardona and precise holds by Allen.