A week ago Tom Brady and Co. flew to New Orleans looking for a bounce-back victory against a Saints team that's fielded a pretty poor defense to open the season.
Not surprisingly Brady threw for nearly 450 yards and three touchdowns on the way to AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors in the impressive win to improve to 1-1 on the season.
Now, New England returns home to the newly-installed turf of Gillette Stadium looking to continue the positive momentum in a matchup with a Houston (1-1) squad that has a more formidable defense but has pretty significant limitations on the offensive side of the ball.
All week Brady and Bill Belichick have raved about a Texans defense that's now led by former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel, in his first year as coordinator. The unit sports a front seven littered with game-changing stars, most notably a now-healthy J.J. Watt.
New England's respect for the defense is well-founded, given that the Watt-less group pressured Brady mightily last January in a playoff game that was far more of a battle than the eventual 34-16 final score in the Patriots win might indicate.
Houston led the NFL in total defense with the No. 2-ranked unit against the pass. This year, despite battling injuries in the secondary, Houston has the No. 6 defense through two weeks.
"They have some incredible players, one of the best defenses in the league," Brady said. "They've been in the top five for the last three years. They're really good, really talented, they play hard, they're disciplined, they play with a lot of fundamentals [and] they're coaches do a great job of preparing them. It's a good test. We played them in the playoffs last year. It probably wasn't our best game. They gave us a lot of challenges and we're going to have to deal with them as best as we possibly can. It's a tough team to face."
But much like the Saints, Houston lacks complementary balance. With rookie quarterback DeShaun Watson leading the attack, the Texans are a very limited offense. The group has two touchdowns in two games, struggling to run or throw the ball with any consistency. Last week in Cincy a Watson 49-yard scramble to a touchdown that was the difference in the win.
So while Brady may find his work a little tougher against the Texans, New England certainly may not need to put up nearly as many points to get the job done.
As the Patriots and the team dubbed Patriots South finalize their preparations for their third battle in barely a calendar year, here are some keys to keep an eye on Sunday afternoon in Foxborough.
Patriots Football Weekly's Andy Hart shares his players to watch during Sunday's matchup against the Houston Texans.
Block party - The Texans have, on paper, one of the more formidable fronts in football. Last January Romeo Crennel unleashed the rush on Brady, including Whitney Mercilus lining up over the center to put inside pressure on Brady. It worked, keeping Houston in the game without much help from Brock Osweiler and the offense. The plan will probably be similar this time around, with Watt added to the mix. It will be on the New England line, especially center David Andrews, to step up to the obvious challenge. The back end of the Houston defense has issues with health at cornerback, but Brady can only attack that if he has time to work. So far the trio of Watt, Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney have yet to record a sack and have just two QB hits. They are playing better than their numbers and might be due for a breakout performance. The New England line, which has Marcus Cannon dealing with both a concussion and an ankle injury, has its hands full on Sunday.
Stay the passing course - New England got back to its identity in many ways last week in New Orleans. Brady got rid of the ball quickly and utilized his running backs and tight end to do so. James White had eight catches and once again proved he can be a volume target, especially if the slot position remains a question. That may not be a problem, though, given that Danny Amendola deemed himself good to go this week. When he was on the field prior to his concussion in Week 1 the offense was cruising in part thanks to his 100 yards. Despite the scare with his groin in New Orleans, Rob Gronkowski also said he's ready to go. The Texans banged up cornerbacks and rookie linebacker Zach Cunningham are potential guys to target through the air. The quick, timely passing game with some tempo should work against Houston and even with guys like Brandin Cooks on the outside remains the Patriots bread and butter.
No running near The Hall - Houston wants to and probably has to run the football. They just haven't really been able to do it yet. New England's run defense has been down and up over the last two weeks. It was better against the Saints, even with Alan Branch playing a limited role. The veteran may need to be more active in this one, which might also offer a chance to see veteran David Harris contribute to trying to stop Lamar Miller and maybe young back D'Onta Foreman. The Patriots can't allow the Texans to run with any consistency.
Cover Hopkins - Forget Cover 1 or 2, this week the main coverage is Cover Hopkins. DeAndre Hopkins is the Texans passing attack. He's been targeted on 29 of Houston's 60 throws this season. His 14 receptions are twice the next most productive target, running back Tyler Ervin. The visitors' passing game is also obviously limited by what the raw rookie Watson is able to do through the air at this point. If Houston has any dreams of the upset the offense's contribution to the effort will likely need to include a big play, likely to Hopkins. New England has given up too many big plays this year, but the secondary is too talented and experienced to continue to allow that to be an issue, especially against such a limited attack.
Watch out for Watson - Watson is a proven winner at the high school and college level. He's a great athlete. He can make plays with his feet. But he's not anywhere near a polished NFL passer right now. That means he's far more dangerous on the move than in the pocket. Just ask the Bengals. It's important for the Patriots developing young pass rush to keep Watson bottled up. Guys like Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise can't get overaggressive and out of their lanes. Watson will take any opening he's given and has the ability to turn that into big yards. Play it straight and safe up front and it should work out.
Prediction:The Patriots are nearly a two-touchdown favorite and clearly the better all-around team in this battle. New England proved offensively it could beat up on a bad defense last week in New Orleans. Now Brady and Co. can prove their mettle, especially in pass protection, against far more formidable foe. Certainly both teams know each other really well. Both teams are battling injuries across the board. In the end Brady should find plenty of room to work and I just can't see Watt and Co. completely ruining the day enough for Watson to score enough. The Patriots know they need to stop the run and avoid the big plays allowed on defense. When the task at hand is so obvious and so attainable, Matt Patricia's troops usually get the job done. They will on Sunday against a suspect offense. Put it all together and New England should improve to 2-1 with a 31-12 win on a beautiful fall day in Foxborough.
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