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Game Observations: Starters get feet wet in Houston

Some of the names were more familiar in Week 2 but the result was the same for the Patriots, who dropped a 27-23 decision at the hands of the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium.

After sitting out Week 1 the majority of the starters got their feet wet against the Texans as Tom Brady & Co. mounted a touchdown drive on their second and final series of the game. Jacoby Brissett and the backups tried to pull the game out in the waning seconds but a strip sack fumble through the end zone allowed Houston to hold on for the win.

Here are some random observations from tonight’s game.

-Big plays continue to haunt the defense in the early going. Matt Patricia’s unit usually thrives on making opponents put drives together but for the second game in a row the defense allowed three plays of 30 yards or more. Houston struck for passes 37, 33 and 63 yards – the first two coming in the first half when many of the regulars were on the field. That performance came on the heels of the opener when Jacksonville hit for touchdowns of 97, 79 and 42 yards. It’s obviously early and the preseason is not normally a time to make rash assessments but the big plays are something to keep an eye on and clearly Bill Belichick and Patricia are not happy about them.

-Cyrus Jones took a positive step in Week 2, returning a first half punt 32 yards down the left sideline. He did a great job of making the first defender miss, then shot through an opening and read his blocking well before finding some open space. He showed a nice burst once he hit the open field and managed to set up the offense nicely. It wasn’t all good, however, as he made an ill-advised decision to track a Shane Lechler punt inside his 10 and caught it over the shoulder. He was buried immediately at the 9, and in the process took away a potential two-minute drill for Jimmy Garoppolo and the offense late in the first half. The results were a little better overall but the decisions still need to improve.

-It was just for a short time but the starters from both teams were on the field in the first quarter. Brady led one touchdown drive on his two series before leaving for the night. There was one element of the early going that was somewhat concerning for the offensive line. During last year’s divisional playoff win at Gillette Stadium the Texans managed to create significant pressure on Brady by using their defensive ends on the inside. It was a stunt that caused all kinds of trouble for the interior of the Patriots offensive line. While it wasn’t a huge part of the game, Houston had some success doing the same thing Saturday night. J.J. Watt lined up inside and split Joe Thuney and David Andrews to help stuff Rex Burkhead in the backfield for a loss. The wrinkle has been successful enough that the Patriots should probably expect to see it again in Week 3 when the teams meet again in Foxborough.

-Like big plays on defense, the Patriots special teams have also shown some signs of inconsistency thus far this summer. The Jaguars had a long punt return to set up a touchdown in Week1 and Saturday night Tyler Ervin took a punt back 19 yards to set up a Texans score. Ervin appeared to be on his way to an even bigger return but was barely tripped up by long snapper Joe Cardona. Joe Judge’s group needs to find some consistency before the regular season arrives.

-On a positive note, Stephen Gostkowski was back to his normal self in Houston. He connected on field goals of 38, 51 and 42 yards and made both PATs. His kicks all were pretty close to perfect as well and had plenty of leg, as did all six of his kickoffs, which went for touchbacks.

-The defense used a couple of different looks on the first two series with their sub packages. On the first possession Patricia went with the “big nickel” that featured three safeties – Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon. On the next series it was a more traditional nickel with corners Malcolm Butler, Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe. Interestingly, the slot corner seemed to change from play to play with Butler, Rowe and at times McCourty all getting reps inside.

-One thing that has been apparent all summer is the ability of the running backs to catch the ball. It seems all of them have the ability to get out of the backfield and make plays in the passing game and that was certainly the case in Houston. Rex Burkhead caught three passes for 50 yards and a touchdown. He also did a great job of picking up a rushing linebacker on the first play of the second series. Dion Lewis chipped in with a catch for 9 yards and D.J. Foster added four receptions for 52 yards and a touchdown. Burkhead and Foster both made terrific moves on in-cuts to get free from man coverage against rookie linebacker Zach Cunningham and then turned in nice runs to the end zone.

-Belichick said after the game that all the healthy players saw action but one that didn’t was Trey Flowers. Flowers took part fully in the week’s joint practice action in West Virginia but was a curious absence in Houston. He is not dealing with any known injury and told reporters after the game that he is healthy. Given the team’s lack of depth at defensive end, perhaps there is some urgency to keep Flowers healthy and if he’s dealing with even a minor ailment it’s possible Belichick wanted to hold him out. Deatrich Wise (concussion) and Derek Rivers (knee) are gone and depth is clearly an issue at the position.

-Given that lack of defensive end depth, could a trade be in the mix? If so here are a couple of potential candidates: Lewis and Jones. Jones had a nice night in the return game and may have created some attention for himself. Lewis would be a much more difficult guy to part ways with but the overall depth at running back might make it possible. Lewis has seen a lot of action in the preseason, which at times can mean the coaches are looking to get more information. It also could mean he’s being showcased for a potential move. Will it happen? Probably not, but just something to keep in mind.

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