...It seemed appropriate that New England's defense would get first crack at the Texans Thursday night. This talented unit had been inconsistent through the first two games, and with rookie Jacoby Brissett starting at QB for the Patriots, he needed an assist from his teammates on the other side of the ball. The first opportunity for a big play came on 3rd-and-8 from just shy of midfield, in Texans territory.
...QB Brock Osweiler was in a shotgun with a back to his right and four wides, two on each side of the formation. The Patriots were in man coverage with two deep safeties (a frequent look for them Thursday night). DE Jabaal Sheard didn't do anything fancy to get the sack. Sheard was in a stand-up position opposite Houston RT Derek Newton. At the snap, Sheard simply attacked Newton with a speed rush, but combined that with a powerful, two-armed shot to the chest that knocked Newton back on his heels. With Newton off-balance, Sheard had a free path to Osweiler, who nearly eluded Sheard's grasp, but the DE did a great job of holding onto Osweiler's jersey with one hand and pulling him to the turf. Great individual effort by Sheard. Had Sheard not been able to secure Osweiler, DT Anthony Johnson had beaten his man and was prepared to take the QB down. But all credit to Sheard on this play.
...Like with Jimmy Garoppolo in the first game and a half, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels did a wonderful job of sculpting his play-calling to take advantage of his quarterback's strengths. One new wrinkle with Brissett Thursday was the fake pitch/option run. He first time the Patriots used it was on their second drive. Brissett had Julian Edelman and Brandon Bolden in a T-formation behind him in the shotgun. Edelman flared left and Brissett faked a toss to him. Bolden went right and Brissett used him as an option threat, faking a pitch to Bolden. But decided to keep the ball and shoot up-field for a 13-yard gain. Garoppolo would be able to run this play, but you'd never see Tom Brady put in this situation. Nice flexibility by McDaniels to customize some calls based on his personnel.
...Special teams was a crucial component to New England's first shutout win since 2012. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski has been doing a good job this season of "coffin corering" his kickoffs - hanging them high and short near either pylon along the goal line - when asked to do so, to give his coverage unit time to get downfield and pin opponents deep. He did this again after his first field goal of the night opened the scoring. Return man Charles James took the ball just inside his goal line and raced out of the end zone, but was met hard from the side by Bolden, who led with a strong shot to James' upper body. This jarred the ball loose as James fell to the ground. It rolled toward Duron Harmon and he scooped it into his grasp as players from both teams piled on him. The officials initially ruled James down by contact, but replays clearly showed the ball coming out before he hit the ground, so they correctly overturned their call. New England had outstanding field position at Houston's 22.
...RT Marcus Cannon's deserved false start penalty on the next play turned out to be a blessing in disguise. By moving New England back five yards to the 27, the next play call turned to be a historic one. Again, McDaniels was spot-on with his choice. Brissett, under center, had TE Martellus Bennett and two other receivers to the short left side of the formation with LeGarrette Blount in the backfield. Rookie WR Malcolm Mitchell was the lone receiver flanked to the far right. The play looked to be going to the offense's left.
At the snap, Brissett wheeled around clockwise to fake a hand off to Blount going left. Houston bought the fake all the way and Brissett spun back to his right. Mitchell ran full-speed down field, taking CB Jonathan Joseph with him and clearing out a vast swath of turf for his quarterback. RG Shaq Mason threw a key block on LB Benardrick McKinney at the line of scrimmage to allow Brissett to take off unhindered after Mitchell. By the time another Houston defender came near Brissett, he was at the 5-yard line and just put on the brakes to let the defender fly by him. Mitchell engaged Joseph with a perfect block to seal him off from Brissett and allow the rookie QB to dive over the goal line. Brissett's 27-yard scoring run was the longest touchdown run by a Patriots QB since Steve Grogan in 1976 (thanks SportsCenter for that tidbit).
...Osweiler committed the second Texans turnover when he threw an INT to LB Jamie Collins over the middle. With the Texans in an empty backfield, trips right, Collins initially lined up as the middle linebacker, but in a deeper position than you'd expect, about seven yards from the line of scrimmage. At the snap, with Osweiler in the shotgun, Colllins dropped back and turned his entire body toward the trips side of the formation, but never took his eyes off the QB. When he realized that Osweiler was targeted the opposite side of the field, Collins was in the perfect position to drift across the field and undercut the intended receiver's route. Either Osweiler didn't expect Collins to be there, or he tried to thread a pass through a tight window and failed. Either way, it was a good play by Collins.
...On the ensuing possession for New England, Brissett was brought down for the only time in this game. From a shotgun position, he took the snap on 3rd-and-7 from the Houston 40. OLB Jadeveon Clowney used a similar move to Sheard's on the first Patriots sack to maneuver past Cannon. Brissett sensed he was about to be hit and stepped up in the pocket to avoid Clowney. However, as he did, he ran right into the path of McKinney, the linebacker, who had been engaged with center David Andrews and just sidestepped the blocker to wrap up Brissett for a loss and force a punt. It was one of the few o-line mistakes by New England all night from a pass protection perspective.
...It looked like Ryan got away with a few wrist grabs against WR DeAndre Hopkins throughout the contest. Ryan never incurred a penalty flag, however.
...Definitely a flinch before the snap by rookie LG Joe Thuney midway through the quarter, which drew a false start penalty. Thuney and Cannon currently lead the Patriots with three penalties apiece after three games. Both men have drawn a pair of holding calls in addition to their false starts.
...Great route and effort by WR Danny Amendola to pick up a first down on 3rd-and-15 deep in Patriots territory. From the left slot, he ran a shallow crossing pattern to the right, while Bennett did the same from the right side to the left. Amendola came underneath Bennett, while the Texans defense backed up to try to keep the ball in front of them and the first-down marker. Amendola caught the ball about 10 yards shy of the marker, but Houston's four nearest defenders were playing too deep to converge on him in time. None of them made contact with Amendola till he was a yard away, and his momentum allowed him to fight through two tacklers at once and stretch across the yard marker to get the first down.
3rd & 4th Quarters
...We're now hearing that Brissett has a sprained thumb on his right (throwing) hand, according to media reports. It appears to have happened when he scrambled for four yards on a keeper very shortly after halftime. Former Patriot Vince Wilfork landed on him while making the tackle and Brissett's right arm was on the bottom of the pile. It's remarkable that he was able to throw as well as he did during the second half.
...That opening drive of the half resulted in a short Gostkowski field goal, after which he executed another successful coffin-corner kickoff. This time, rookie Tyler Ervin took the ball and Nate Ebner delivered a textbook helmet-to-football hit that separated the ball from Ervin's grip. Ebner nearly recovered it, too, but fellow safety Jordan Richards showed good awareness and was right at Ebners feet, where the ball wound up, to pounce on it for the turnover.
...Blount eventually pounded the ball in from a yard out, thanks in large part to two PI penalties in the end zone against the Texans secondary on the ensuing drive, but it was Blount's 41-yard run for a score that was the highlight of the fourth quarter. Excellent blocking by both the o-line and FB James Develin helped spring Blount, who avoided a shoestring tackle in the backfield to make the play have any chance at all. Then, once downfield, Edelman and WR Chris Hogan threw the final two blocks that gave Blount an alley through which he sprinted 30 yards to the end zone. Beautiful to watch how those blocks were thrown by everyone, particularly the receivers and Develin, on that run.
...Credit once again to New England's offensive line and extra blockers like TE Martellus Bennett and (briefly) Rob Gronkowski, as well as Develin throughout the game. The Patriots were able to run the ball and protect Brissett effectively thanks to the efforts of these big bodies up front. The o-line in particular has been solid so far in 2016 under the tutelage of Dante Scarnecchia. They're playing with much more confidence and working as a cohesive unit, something we haven't seen the past two seasons when Scar was in retirement.
...Can't overlook Patriots punter Ryan Allen. He had maybe his best game ever as a pro: 7 boots, averaging more than 47 yards each, a long of 57, but far more impressively, no returns by Houston and six of those punts were downed inside the Texans' 20-yard line. That was critical to helping the defense pressure Osweiler, which in turn allowed New England's offense to get the ball back with advantageous field position. A game ball should be given to Allen.