…WR Brandin Cooks had his best day so far as a Patriot, catching five of the seven balls thrown to him for 131 yards, a pair of TDs, including the game-winner and its ensuing 2-point conversion. He got started right away, hauling in a 44-yard pass on 3rd-and-13 to help New England avoid a three-and-out on its opening possession.
It was a simple go-route down the left (Texans) sideline, but Cooks' concentration while making an adjustment to QB Tom Brady's slightly underthrown ball, plus the Houston defender's arm literally in his face and chest, was outstanding. These are the kinds of plays the Patriots brought Cooks here to make on a consistent basis, and after three games, he seems to be settling quite nicely into the role.
…For the third straight game to start this season, opponents have tried to defend TE Rob Gronkowski by single-covering him with just a safety. The tactic worked well for the Chiefs, not so much for the Saints. The Texans gave it a go on the opening drive, putting Corey Moore on Gronk in the red zone. New England split Gronk out wide left, leaving him alone on that side of the field with Moore. Normally when the Patriots get this kind of mismatch, they throw to him. That's what Brady did, but the throw was terrible – high and a bit behind Gronk.
So, wisely, OC Josh McDaniels called the exact same play on the very next down, and Houston bafflingly lined up with the same coverage. The logical decision by Brady would be to throw to Gronk again, which he did. This time, Brady's toss was more precise and Gronk completed the scoring drive.
…The Patriots couldn't avoid a three-and-out on their next possession. WR Chris Hogan ran a curl on 3rd-and-4 that was a good two yards short of the 1st-down marker. He might have made this decision because pre-snap, it appeared as if the Texans were going to blitz Brady. They ended up only rushing three players, however, and dropping the rest in coverage. Had Houston blitzed, Hogan's short route might have resulted in his picking up the necessary yardage because there might not have been the extra defender lurking downfield to stuff him. Good job of disguising by the Texans to negate a bread-and-butter play for New England.
…DC Matt Patricia hasn't been calling many blitzes this season. When he does, it's normally on 3rd downs. However, he tried a corner blitz with Jonathan Jones on 1st-and-10 from near midfield on Houston's fourth drive. Didn't have any effect, however, as Jones never got close to rookie QB Deshaun Watson. He stumbled on his way to the backfield and was plowed out of the picture by a Houston o-lineman thereafter. The Texans picked up 15 yards on the pass completion.
…Jones was victimized by Watson on the very next play. New England sent just four up-front rushers after Watson, none of whom threatened him at all. The Patriots also kept three players – safety Patrick Chung and linebackers Elandon Roberts and Kyle Van Noy – within five yards of the line of scrimmage to spy on Watson and his running back, who stayed put to help pass protect.
Watson did a nice job of looking off safety Devin McCourty for a split second, which gave WR Bruce Ellington a wide open lane down the hash marks. Ellington easily got a step ahead of Jones, and McCourty was too late coming over to help. Watson fired a pass down the middle of the field that was a bit high and behind, but Ellington made a nice adjustment to catch it for a 29-yard touchdown.
…Brady was sacked the first of five times Sunday on the final play of the first quarter. DE Jadeveon Clowney appeared to have gotten around LT Nate Solder, but it's unclear if Solder would have been able to prevent Clowney from getting to Brady because Solder was quickly taken out of the play unwittingly by his teammate, LG Joe Thuney. J.J. Watt was Thuney's man on that play, and Thuney drove Watt into Solder's back, which knocked all three men to the turf. Clowney kept his feet and chasing Brady down from behind.
…Facing another 3rd down, New England nicely picked up a six-man blitz by Houston and Brady unloaded the football to Gronk. However, two of the five Texans in coverage did an even better job of swarming to the tight end when he caught the ball and they managed to bring him down well short of the sticks.
…Cornerback Stephon Gilmore notched his first INT as a Patriot, thanks in part to another effective job of pass rushing by rookie DE Deatrich Wise. Two Texans tried to keep Wise off of Watson, but he managed to put enough pressure on the young QB to force him into a hurried throw to an intended receiver running down the sideline.
Gilmore said he's remembered that particular play from his film study of Houston, and recognized that the ball was underthrown as a result of Wise's rush.
…Two plays later, Brady hit Hogan on a wide-open touchdown to the left side of the end zone. On 1st-and-goal from the Houston 7-yard line, the Texans sent eight guys after Brady, but the Patriots had eight blockers to handle them (five o-linemen, Gronk, fullback James Develin, and RB Dion Lewis). Cooks and Hogan began the play on the left side of the formation, but Hogan motioned to the right side before the snap.
The three Texans in the secondary got confused, it seemed, by the criss-crossing patterns that Cooks and Hogan ran. Cooks went to the right, Hogan to the left. None of them picked up Hogan, and Brady had plenty of time to float an easy pass to him for the score.
…Wise and the rest of the D-line did a good job most of the day applying pressure on Watson, but his athleticism allowed him to escape most of the time. Not much more the Patriots could have done better in those situations. It was impressive to watch Watson escape what would normally be easy sacks of most quarterbacks.
…Gilmore's fist penalty of the afternoon was a close call. He attempted to tackle a receiver who'd made a catch along the sideline, and as Gilmore went in for the tackle, the receiver was still in bounds and headed for the sideline. By the time Gilmore got there, though, he was well into the white area, so, it seems the flag was warranted. I wouldn't have been surprised if no flag was thrown, however. Very much a judgement call by John Parry's officiating crew.
…OLB Whitney Mercilus sparked Houston's next TD when he used a start-and-stop move to put Solder at a disadvantage. Mercilus then raced right by the flat-footed Solder and hit Brady from behind, causing the QB to lose his grip on the football. It squirted up in the air and collected on the way down by Clowney, who ran untouched to the end zone.
…New England responded with another wide-open Hogan touchdown catch-and-run. He and Cooks were lined up together on the right side, with Hogan in the slot. Gronk was wide left and the Texans double-covered him. They sent just four players after Brady, but kept three linebackers in the middle of the field near the line of scrimmage. That left just a corner and a safety on the other side to mark Cooks and Hogan.
Cooks ran an out that lured the safety in his direction. The corner originally marking Cooks backpedaled and seemed unsure whether to stay with Cooks or follow Hogan, who ran a short fake to the outside. The middle of the field was now empty, and Hogan ran into the void, hauled in Brady's pass, and raced for the end zone. He might have come up just short of the goal line as the safety caught up to and tackled him, but replays were apparently inconclusive. The TD stood as called on the field.
…Hogan returned the favor when he cleared out a space for Cooks on the latter's first TD grab in a Patriots uniform. Hogan ran straight down the seam to open up that space, while Cooks ran a square-in pattern into that area. His defender had given him a bit of a cushion and Cooks used his speed to maintain that separation as he darted across the field and to the end zone. Another nice illustration of how a receiver who doesn't get the ball is still important in the overall play design.
…DE Cassius Marsh used a combination of speed and poor technique by the Texans to register the only true sack of Watson Sunday (the first one was technically sack, but he ran out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage and wasn't taken down directly by a Patriot). Marsh got behind Watson by simply running past RT Breno Giacomini. RB Lamar Miller tried to pitch in to help, but completely whiffed on Marsh, who now had the element of surprise to envelope Watson and knock the ball loose. A Texan recovered, however. This could have been a consequential play for New England had the Patriots recovered the fumble because Houston went on the score after keeping possession.
…Houston trimmed the lead with a tremendous back-shoulder throw by Watson to TE Ryan Griffin in the middle of the end zone. He was 1-on-1 with safety Devin McCourty and the only place Watson could put the ball without it being defended was where he did. Griffin made a nice clockwise spin in the air to put himself in position to make the grab. Hard to fault McCourty, who provided otherwise tight coverage.
…Brady was strip-sacked thanks to a well-executed stunt by Houston's D-line. RG Shaq Mason's man, Christian Covington, slipped underneath his teammate, who was engaged with C David Andrews. Covington then bulldozed his way through Andrews and swatted the ball out of Brady's hands, but Mason was able to recover the loose ball.
…New England hasn't fared well in short-yardage attempts to pick up first downs this season. They failed on yet another rushing attempt in this situation early in the 4th when Covington appeared to get excellent inside leverage against Solder, who has struggled in these situations through the first three games. By knifing into the backfield, Covington was able to bring down RB Mike Gillislee just shy of the marker. The Patriots need to improve in this department if they hope to have success sustaining drives going forward.
…DT Alan Branch hasn't played much so far this season, but when called upon to assist in a 3rd-and-1 situation late in the game, he contributed significantly to the Patriots' stuffing of Houston short of the sticks. He and the rest of the D-line held their ground at the line of scrimmage as the Texans handed off to Miller up the middle. Had the Texans picked up that first down, they might have scored more than three points, or run the clock down enough to prevent New England from attempting a comeback. Instead, Branch's play helped give the Patriots that opportunity.
…A well-timed safety blitz by Houston nearly ended New England's comeback when Marcus Gilchrist strip-sacked Brady at midfield. He came untouched up the middle and knocked the ball from Brady's hands, but Andrews happened to be in the right place – and aware of his surroundings – to scoop the ball up.
…Cooks' speed helped him get to the end zone on the final touchdown of the day, but again, his concentration is what stood out most as he kept his feet in bounds and held onto the ball as he hit the turf. His excellent route on the ensuing 2-point conversion – a simple in-and-out – faked the defender enough to give Cooks just enough room to collect Brady's short throw along the goal line.