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Game Observations: Defense leads the way

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Bill Belichick once said there’s a reason why the phrase “midseason form” has meaning, and it was on display at Gillette Stadium on Sunday. Neither the Patriots nor Texans approached their best football, but in the end New England made fewer mistakes than the visitors and came away with a 27-20 victory to open the season.

The teams combined for five turnovers and converted just 6 of 25 third downs combined, but the star power of Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski were enough to start the season off on the right foot.

Here are some random thoughts from the Patriots first victory of the season.

-Brady fought through periods of sluggishness throughout the first half but still came away with 21 points courtesy of three touchdown passes – to three different receivers. After going three-and-out the Patriots took advantage of a Texans fumble on the first play and cashed in with a 21-yard strike to Gronkowski. Gronk was double covered near the left pylon but still made the catch and managed to keep his feet in bounds while spinning the ball into the end zone. Brady later found James White and Phillip Dorsett for scores, but at times he seemed to struggle looking for open receivers. The best part of the opening 30 minutes was the pass protection, which afforded the 41-year-old plenty of time on virtually every play. He completed 16 of 26 for 154 yards but also had a pass picked off when his third-down throw to an open White was tipped at the line and caught by Tyrann Mathieu. He leaned heavily on his trusted weapons – Gronk and White – but with mixed results. Gronk had four catches for 60 yards but White caught only two of the seven balls thrown his way.

-The offense as usual used a number of personnel groups but tended to lean on two basic sets. The Patriots opened with two tight ends with Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen joining James Develin and Rex Burkhead on the backfield and Cordarrelle Patterson the lone wideout. On second down Chris Hogan, Riley McCarron, White and Dorsett entered while Allen, Patterson, Develin and Burkhead departed. The personnel changed at times but those were the two looks Josh McDaniels went with for the most part.

-Speaking of McDaniels, CBS color analyst Tony Romo has some praise for the Patriots offensive coordinator during the game. “To me, Josh McDaniels is as important to this franchise – not quite a Belichick or a Brady, but it is really close. He is outstanding. Look at what he is doing today. We always give Brady a ton of credit, as he should get. But McDaniels is so key. He puts guys in unique, special positions, and they can plug different people in…It is rare what they do, and this guy has done it for so long around here. He is really a special caller and designer of plays.”

-The game plan coming in as somewhat expected as Brady relied on Gronkowski and White, but he also seemed to target the Texans linebackers in coverage. Zach Cunningham was in Brady’s crosshairs the most as Burkhead got a step on him for a potential touchdown early but Brady overthrew him, and later White and Gronkowski both victimized the second-year linebacker. Cornerback Kevin Johnson also got picked on, especially on the final drive of the first half when the Patriots put the game away. Dorsett beat Johnson on a pair of quick outs before beating him with a quick move from the slot for a touchdown. Johnson was dealing with a concussion heading into the game and was knocked out once again late. He appeared to be a step behind all day.

-The Patriots spent a good portion of the week preparing for Deshaun Watson and his mobility. Bill Belichick chose rookie cornerback Keion Crossen, who has freakish speed and athleticism, to play the role of the Texans quarterback. The prep work seemed to pay off, especially early on when the Patriots front did a nice job of containing Watson between the tackles while the coverage was effective enough to force the quarterback to hold the ball longer than he wanted to. Even when Watson had time he seemed reluctant to pull it down and run, which is understandable coming off a torn ACL that limited his rookie season to just seven games. Give the Patriots front seven credit for effectively executing the game plan, and to Crossen for giving the team good looks all week in practice.

-That task of containing Watson became a bit easier before the game began as Texans wideout Will Fuller was deemed out with a hamstring injury. That left just DeAndre Hopkins as a viable option on the outside for Watson to utilize, and Stephon Gilmore did a nice job of limiting his damage. Last season Watson and Fuller played four games together and Houston average 40.5 points in those contests as Fuller caught four touchdowns – all coming on big plays. Without the speedy wideout, and with Watson’s mobility limited, the Texans offense struggled.

-Gilmore was quite competitive against Hopkins throughout, limiting one of the best receivers in the game with just 78 yards on eight catches. It looked like the corner was content to allow Hopkins the inside slants while playing outside leverage, preventing the wideout from using his trademark size and strength to make plays down the sideline. Watson looked his way more often in the second half but Hopkins was unable to make an impact on the game.

-LaAdrian Waddle replaced Marcus Cannon periodically at right tackle as it appeared that Cannon was still nursing a left calf injury. Cannon had a wrap on his calf late in the first quarter and was stretching throughout the series with Waddle in his place. Waddle also played at times in the second half and struggled a bit dealing with J.J. Watt off the edge. The pass protection overall was outstanding, though, as Brady was sacked just twice and generally had plenty of time to throw. Brady finished 26 of 39 for 277 yards and three touchdowns with one pick.

-Jeremy Hill left the game in the third quarter and did not return. He had his right knee hit by James Develin following a Gronkowski fumble, and he struggled getting off the field. He was announced as out immediately, which is not a great sign for the future. 

-McCarron served as the punt returner and had an eventful day until his final attempt. Leading by 14 with about four minutes left, the Patriots had McCarron back to field a punt but the wideout couldn’t handle Trevor Daniel’s kick and allowed the Texans a short field to cut the lead in half. McCarron otherwise called three fair catches on his other attempts, but the decision-making will come into question given the turnover in a key spot. 

-The run defense was one of the few areas that the defense did not perform well in. The Texans rushed for 167 yards on 34 attempts for a healthy 4.9-yard average. Watson contributed just 40 of those yards as Lamar Miller (98) and Alfred Blue (36) gashed the Patriots front on several occasions. Particularly troubling was Blue’s 8-yard run on a third-and-one in the second quarter. 

-Texans coach Bill O’Brien did not have his best game in terms of managing situations. A sequence late in the first half not only allowed the Patriots to put the game away but will probably cause some sleepless moments for the coach. Brady hit Gronkowski in heavy traffic for 28 yards on a play in which the ball came out as a pile of players hit the ground. The officials ruled it a completion and down by contact, but replays showed the catch was in question. The tight end made an amazing adjustment on the ball but seemed to have trouble securing it and the Patriots smartly rushed to the line to get the next play off. Since it occurred inside the last two minutes a review needed to be called from upstairs but O’Brien had three timeouts at his disposal and could have used one to allow more time. He argued with referee Tony Corrente after Burkhead carried for a 5-yard gain on the next play, but the referee told him he didn’t request the timeout quickly enough. Replays showed the ball moved but it may have been ruled a catch with the more lenient rules in place for a completion, but O’Brien still erred in not calling timeout. In the postgame pool report with Corrente, the official said the call from New York did not arrive in time to stop play. “The situation was that New York did get back to us. However, unfortunately, they didn’t get to the game officials on the field until after the play had already started,” Corrente said. “They got to us on the field, but the play had already developed. It had started. You can’t challenge after the snap, no.”

-While that was the most egregious mistake, it wasn’t the only decision in question. In the second half the Texans were marching deep into Patriots territory trailing 21-6 and faced a fourth-and-five from the Patriots 17. A field goal would have cut the lead to 12 but O’Brien chose to go for it despite the fact that there were 10 minutes still remaining in the third quarter. The Patriots tacked on a field goal on their ensuing drive and Houston answered with a touchdown, which would have made the score 24-16 with a full fourth quarter still to go. But instead they still trailed by two scores and never threatened again.

-One final curious decision that didn’t have much significance came on the final kickoff of the first half. Stephen Gostkowski drilled his kickoff through the end zone but the Patriots were called for an illegal formation. O’Brien chose to add 5 yards to the touchback, giving the Texans the ball at the 30 with 14 seconds left. He then had Watson take a knee to close the half. If he didn’t plan to attempt anything, why not make the Patriots re-kick and see if Tyler Ervin, who was effective in the return game all afternoon, could make a big play? Seemed like a situation where there was little to lose.

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