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Analysis: Stars appear, but backups shine

HOUSTON – The last time New England's regular starters saw game action as a collective unit was six months ago, on this very field, when the Patriots celebrated their most recent Super Bowl triumph. Fittingly, in their first road game since then, they trotted most of those players back out onto the field at NRG Stadium.

Nearly all of their regular starters on both sides of the ball – including QB Tom Brady and a surprising appearance by tight end Rob Gronkowski – saw action during the first couple of series – a common cameo length for the second preseason game.

"It felt good to be out there, get my feet wet," Gronkowski told reporters afterward. "It was great. I love to play football. We expect to play every game, no matter when it is, even if it is preseason. That's how we go into these games mentally."

The outcome of Saturday's tilt with the Texans may have been much less historic or consequential than their last visit here, but the latest game at NRG held a more immediate significance for New England's preparations for 2017.

In brief first-quarter activity, New England's restocked offense looked strong, moving the ball effectively with Brady frequently feeding newcomer Rex Burkhead with handoffs and passes out of the backfield, including a nifty catch-and-run touchdown in the second quarter.

"It was a route out of the backfield," Burkhead explained at his locker, "kind of an option, go in or out. I just made a move on the defender, and Tom threw a great ball right when I turned. It was right there. I got it and tried to get to the end zone as fast as possible."

With a reputation as more of a receiving-type back, Burkhead had more than a half-dozen opportunities to showcase his ball-carrying skills against Houston, but managed less than three yards per carry, on average.

"Whatever roles the coaches want to put us in, we're more than happy to do it," Burkhead maintained. "We have a ton of great guys and everybody produces, everybody competes. That's what's great about our backfield: we compete, we root for one another. Whenever we make a great play, we're right there cheering each other on."  

Tight end James O'Shaughnessy, another off-season acquisition, showed in his preseason debut why the Patriots were interested in him. He looked fluid running pass routes and making receptions during the second and third quarters, when he was predominantly on the field. With Gronk and Dwayne Allen the consensus top two at tight end on this roster, O'Shaughnessy appears to have the inside track on the third job, assuming New England elects to keep that many tight ends.

The New England Patriots take on the Houston Texans in a preseason game at NRG Stadium on Saturday, August 19, 2017.

Defensively, the most pressing concern coming into Saturday's game was undoubtedly at defensive end. New England reportedly lost top draft choice Derek Rivers to a left knee injury earlier in the week during joint practice with the Texans, thinning further an already-weakened unit afflicted by free agent departures, the retirement of Rob Ninkovich, and injuries to a number of other players at the position.

Deatrich Wise, Rivers' fellow draft choice, had been enjoying a productive start to the preseason, but suffered a concussion versus Jacksonville and didn't accompany the team to Houston. During the practice week with the Texans, veteran Geneo Grissom developed some sort of ailment and had to leave prematurely. He didn't dress for the game, either. Surprisingly, those who remained managed to put consistent pressure on Texans starting QB Tom Savage.

Rookies Caleb Kidder and Harvey Langi earned an opportunity on the Patriots' second defensive series, from the right and left defensive end positions, respectively. Both men nearly combined on a sack of Texans starter Tom Savage on the same play, but their momentum caused them both to run past the QB as he slipped out of the pocket.

Later in the drive, Langi earned a hands-to-the-face penalty that extended Houston's eventual scoring drive, but the two youngsters proved somewhat effective at getting into the backfield.

While Langi continued to see action throughout the first half and into the second, Kidder gave way – quite curiously – to veteran Kony Ealy. Preseason games, particularly the second halves of them, are generally when unproven players like Kidder would normally receive game experience. What this says about the coaching staff's confidence in Ealy, for whom they traded this past offseason, remains to be seen, but it was notably that someone as experienced as Ealy was getting so-called "opportunity reps" in this game.

Normal starting defensive tackle Alan Branch also made second-half appearances, but his situation was altogether different than Ealy's. Having just come off PUP this past week, Branch likely was being given much-needed conditioning snaps to get back up to speed more quickly.

Meanwhile, on special teams, Cyrus Jones may have had his best performance to date. Despite being tackled on a punt return around the Patriots' 5-yard line, Jones handled the ball well and returned two other punts in electrifying fashion – a glimpse of what the coaches thought he could do when they drafted him in the second round a year ago.

Overall, this second game saw more Patriots take part than a week ago, and while it was sloppy at times with a half-dozen penalties incurred by New England, the reigning champs made more good plays than bad. At this stage, that in itself can be considered a victory, regardless of the final score.

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