FOXBOROUGH – Two major questions hovered over the Patriots entering this 2018 season opener: How will New England's offense compensate for the month-long loss of Julian Edelman, and can the Patriots defense show any signs of improvement over their porous tendencies of last season?
After one meaningful game, we have some results to begin contemplating.
Spending most of the first half in their nickel and dime packages, the New England defense, overseen by linebacker coach Brian Flores, used a variety of personnel groups up front to generate a fair amount of pressure on athletic, elusive Houston QB Deshaun Watson, who is returning from a 2017 season-ending knee injury.
Second-year defensive end Deatrich Wise led the charge with 1.5 sacks in the first half (one all his own, another shared with fellow defensive end Trey Flowers). On a cool, autumn-like afternoon, that heat continued to come Watson's way through most of the second half, with Flowers picking up another one to finish with 1.5 sacks of his own.
"We understood what type of game it was going to be, as far as being able to get back there [in the pocket] and continue to keep pressuring him," proclaimed Flowers.
"All our guys did a great job of getting after him. We were definitely aware of him – you see him all over the NFL making great plays with his legs – but you couldn't be timid. You had to rush him aggressively and be aware of his running lanes. I feel as though we put a lot of work in, a lot of young guys working hard. When the opportunity presented itself, a day like today, we showed off our hard work."
"You could start to see [Watson] looking at the [pass] rush and not even looking downfield anymore," remarked safety Duron Harmon. "[The d-line] did a tremendous job today. A lot of our success on defense started with the defensive line."
While Watson's surgically repaired knee didn't seem to hamper him too much (eight runs for 40 yards), his accuracy throwing the football often did, as he misfired on a number of passes throughout the game that should have been easy completions for big yardage, even a touchdown in once case.
Meanwhile, cornerback Stephon Gilmore did a commendable job defending Houston's No. 1 receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who managed just two grabs for 19 first-half yards. Gilmore also made a nice interception on a deep ball in the first half while coming over to help teammate Eric Rowe.
Yet, Gilmore struggled in the late fourth quarter, however, committing a pair of holding penalties against Hopkins that helped Houston complete a scoring drive that trimmed New England's lead to seven with just over two minutes to play. Hopkins also managed to haul in six second-half passes from Watson.
"He's difficult [to cover]. He pushes off a lot," Gilmore observed about Hopkins, "but [the refs] aren't going to call it. He's got a great catch radius, so, the coaches put me in position to make plays. Sometimes I had [safety] help, sometimes I didn't. I was able to make some plays on him."
On offense, New England didn't exactly start in typical Patriots fashion, rushing three straight times and then punting from deep in their own territory. Brady soon looked for his favorite target, tight end Rob Gronkowski, who made a couple of tremendous catches with Texans draped over him in the first half, including one for the first Patriots touchdown of 2018.
In addition to Gronk, Brady managed to find a connection with Phillip Dorsett (seven catches on seven targets, 66 yards, touchdown reception) and fullback James Develin (four-for-four in pass receptions thrown to him), which helped both Brady's confidence and their own individually.
"I was just trying to go out there and do what the coaches asked me to," remarked a demure Develin afterward, "get as open as I could and catch every ball that came to me. Thankfully, I was able to do that today. There's a ton more we can work on, though, so, I'm excited to get back to work."
"Us catching it gives him the confidence to keep going [back] to us," said Dorsett, now in his second season with New England. "I'm still learning. I figure out something new every day. This offense is really complex, but I'm just absorbing it all."
Another positive: tackles Trent Brown on the left and the rotational combo of Marcus Cannon and LaAdrian Waddle on the right did a mostly solid job of preventing Houston's vaunting pass-rush trio of J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, and Whitney Mercilus from putting hands on Brady, who was sacked just twice (both in the second half).
It wasn't entirely smooth sailing, though. Brady wasn't razor sharp at Gillette in the opener, missing a few wide-open receivers with poorly thrown balls. The Patriots D also had considerable difficulty stopping Houston's read-option rushing attack. On special teams, the Patriots allowed the Texans to average more than 30 yards per kickoff return, while punt returner Riley McCarron made several questionable decisions in that role, one of which (a muffed ball on what should have been a fair-catch) eventually led to a Houston touchdown.
The New England backfield also took a potentially serious hit when Jeremy Hill sustained a right knee injury during the chaos that ensued following a Gronkowski fumble near midfield. But for the most part, the Patriots had to come away from this game with an encouraging feeling – particularly with respect to the pass rush and the emergence of Dorsett as a viable, trustworthy target for Brady.
"I'm just happy with the win," added Gilmore. "It feels good. It's a team game, and everyone did their job."
"It was good," Flowers declared. "Obviously, a lot we can improve on."
"We played solid, but we didn't play great," Harmon maintained. "It's never as good as it seems. So, we'll go dissect the film, see what we can do better, and be better next week versus Jacksonville."