In 2014 the Houston Texans used the first overall pick in the draft to select South Carolina pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney. A pair of injury-plagued seasons ensued and Clowney appeared to be well on his way to be the latest NFL bust.
But Clowney seems to have righted his ship and is starting to fulfill some of the promise that led Bill O'Brien and Texans GM Rick Smith to select him No. 1 overall in the first place. Clowney started 14 games this season and recorded 40 tackles and six sacks. He added a tone-setting interception on the game's third play in Houston's 27-14 wild card victory over Oakland last week.
Bill Belichick was asked about Clowney's emergence this season as the Patriots get set to take on the Texans Saturday night.
"In the 3-4 defense they've moved him inside to end, and of course in their sub-defense he moves out kind of as a 4-3 end," Belichick began. "And they seem to be headed that way a little bit more, so they play a 3-4 and a 4-3. But he's been very productive – long, very athletic, good pass rusher, good run player, good tackler, strip sacks, so he's got really good awareness.
"The interception he made on the screen last week against Oakland was not only a very athletic play, but a very instinctive play for him to recognize that and get out there. With his length he's a tough guy to throw around."
Belichick's thoughts on Clowney opened Monday's conference call but they weren't the only ones he provided on the Texans.
Familiar foe – Belichick often talks about his memories of opposing players from scouting them during the pre-draft process and Texans linebacker Bernardrick McKinney was the latest example. McKinney was one of the lone bright spots for Houston during the Patriots 27-0 Week 3 victory in Foxborough, and the coach was asked what makes him such a dangerous playmaker for the Texans.
"He's a very good football player. We did a lot of work on him coming out of Mississippi State. He's the kind of player that played outside and inside linebacker. Also played a little bit at defensive end, is an excellent blitzer, runs very well, is long. He's 6-4 so he gets to a lot of plays with his length, particularly in pass coverage, a hard guy to throw over or around, a very good tackler, good range, good speed, good instincts, good wrap-up tackler. The guy is a real good football player that does a lot for their defense, plays a lot of positons and is, again, does so many things well."
Belichick continued, explaining how it's rare to find a player with his skills that is so versatile.
"It's very unusual to find a player with his skills that can do so many things in the running game, in the passing game, on the line, off the line. He's an excellent player, one of the best players we've played against all year. He played well against us. With [Brian] Cushing inside as well, those two guys are as good as any combination of inside – I mean individually they're as good as we've played against – but they're as good as any combination of inside linebackers that we see or that we've seen in a while. They do everything well."
No Nukes –Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins is one of the most dangerous playmakers in the football, and although the Patriots have done a good job of containing him in their matchups, the man nicknamed Nuke is capable of going off at any time.
Belichick was asked about the key to slowing Hopkins down.
"He has an excellent catch radius, good hands, is a slick route-runner, does a good job of setting up his routes and making several of his routes look the same but then he goes to different places on them. But he's a guy that is, even when you have him covered, his ability to extend and catch the ball away from his body gives the quarterback a place to put it. He's a tough guy to finish on.
"We just need to have good team defense to stop this explosive offense all the way around, so it's everybody handling their responsibility and playing well across the board against a well-balanced team, a team that can run, can throw, good skill players at tight end, running back, receiver, can get the ball down the field and can also score and move the ball on catch-and-run plays. There's a lot to defend there."
Lamar-velous – Belichick mentioned the Texans running game, which is led by free agent addition Lamar Miller as well as Alfred Blue. Both averaged 4 yards per carry or better and the Texans try to control the clock by relying on both, something Belichick is well aware of.
"Very strong runners, break a lot of tackles. Everybody is at the point of attack with those guys because they can run up inside, they can get to the perimeter and they're hard to tackle in the secondary. They're also dangerous on check-downs, screen passes, flat routes, things like that.[Jonathan] Grimes as well, they've used him in passing situations but also he's carried the ball.
"All three of those guys have been very productive for them. They're different, but they're all good. We'll really have to pay attention to who's in the game and make sure we've got those guys, try to keep them boxed in. Tackling will be a big issue with all three of them because they make a lot of yards on their own with the ball in their hands, so that'll be important for us, to do a good job of tackling. Again, it's all of their skill players but the backs are good."