The Patriots preparations for Sunday's visit from the Houston Texans are well underway in Foxborough this week, but in reality they've been going on for much longer than that. The teams have seen quite a bit of each other in recent years, including this summer in joint practices in West Virginia, and the connections among the coaching staffs are obvious.
Bill Belichick kicked off things Wednesday by explaining how playing the Texans is like taking on an AFC East foe.
"I feel like we're almost back in the division here," the coach began. "This Houston team is a team that we have a lot of experience with. We saw them a few weeks ago in West Virginia. We still have a lot of preparation to do, a lot of things have changed since that game for both teams. But obviously, the coach and the coaching staff – Billy [O'Brien] and his staff – we have a lot of respect for.
"They took a 2-14 team and had three good years, been to the playoffs, have won the division the past couple of years, won a playoff game last year. I think he's done a really solid job. I have a lot of respect for the coaching staff and those players. We had great work with them down there in West Virginia, so we could really see up close how talented they are and how competitive they are. We're going to have to do a good job in a lot of areas."
Belichick then explained some of the differences in the teams even going back just a month when they met in the preseason. Rookie Deshaun Watson is now at quarterback and the Patriots are obviously without wideout Julian Edelman. Watson's running ability in particular has Belichick's attention as the coach described the rookie's impact as "an element offensively that's very dangerous."
That wasn't the only area of Houston's attack that Belichick mentioned, however. The defense is the Texans strength, and as such Belichick spent several minutes explaining why.
Rushing deep –The Texans boast several gifted pass rushers with J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus garnering the headlines. One thing that makes them special is their versatility, which the Patriots saw firsthand in the playoffs a year ago when Clowney and Mercilus spent time rushing from the inside.
"They can power rush, they can speed rush, good counters, they run games well, good technique players, they're well-coached. [Defensive coordinator] Mike [Vrabel] does enough things to keep you off balance. I'm not looking out there and saying, 'Well, we've never seen this before.' There's some three-man rush, there's some four-man rush, there's some five-man rush, there's a lot of straight rush, there's power rush, there's games, multiple games. "You're never sure exactly which one of those things you're going to get. When you start mixing them together you don't end up with the same thing repeatedly, so it's always something else different. A different type of rush, a different type of coverage, maybe players aligned in different positions, even though it might be the same players but just different matchups. They create a lot of problems."
Have Mercilus –Mercilus may be the least known of the trio but that's not because he's the least talented. Belichick was asked about the Illinois star's success against New England in the past and made sure to point out Mercilus has been consistently strong.
"He's had success against everybody. Mercilus is a really good football player; strong, fast, plays with great leverage, has length but plays with leverage, very fast off the edge and explosive. Not just speed, but he's got power. He's got good quickness, plays hard, good motor.
"I think you can see – I mean he's a good player – but he's also a rising good player. He just continues to get better. He's very hard to block and if you don't block him he'll run you down. He's got really good pursuit and chase speed."
(Adam) Butler's doing it –Malcolm Butler coming off the bench garnered quite a bit of attention in New Orleans but Adam Butler's insertion into the starting lineup did not. The rookie defensive lineman's versatility caught Belichick's eye right from the start.
"When Adam and I were at Vanderbilt and we met down there [versatility] was one of the things that we talked about. I told him that was one of the reasons that we were interested in him, was his versatility. I think that's one of his strengths. That's been a big asset for him to be able to do different things for us and give us plays inside and outside in run situations, in pass situations, running games and so forth. We've given him a lot. He's been able to handle it."