Playing with rookie third-string quarterback Jacoby Brissett, the Patriots rolled to an easy 27-0 victory over the Houston Texans on Thursday Night Football at Gillette Stadium.
Here are some random thoughts from New England's third victory of the season.
Rolling the dice – With Jimmy Garoppolo out of uniform due to his right shoulder injury, Bill Belichick opted for an unconventional route in replacing him. Rookie Jacoby Brissett got the start but rather than sign a veteran off the street, Belichick chose to have Julian Edelman serve as the backup. Edelman was a college quarterback at Kent State but was immediately switched to wide receiver as a rookie and has attempted just one pass for the Patriots during his eight-year career. Of course that was a memorable touchdown pass to Danny Amendola against Baltimore in the 2014 divisional playoff win at Gillette Stadium, and Belichick did reveal that he's thrown plenty of passes on the practice field over the years.
Belichick at his best – There was a belief heading into the game that having Brissett at the helm might be something Belichick relished. Despite being forced to use his third-string quarterback, Belichick got the opportunity to get creative with his young, mobile passer and took advantage. Early on Brissett executed a zone-read, option look with Brandon Bolden as the pitch man. Brissett correctly read the defense and kept the ball for a 13-yard pickup. Later, after a Texans fumble set the Patriots up with great field position, Brissett took off on a designed run off a naked bootleg that was executed to perfection. Brissett got around right end with Malcolm Mitchell doing a great job of running off his coverage while the rookie did the rest, cutting inside safety Andre Hal inside the 5 before diving into the end zone for a 27-yard touchdown. Belichick also had Martellus Bennett and Julian Edelman serve as ball carriers and lined up Edelman behind Brissett as well. Another example of Belichick consistently being a step ahead of his competition.
Shades of Peyton Manning – The Patriots have consistently used a defensive scheme against Manning that has at times frustrated the future Hall of Famer. New England used three safeties with Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon deep to keep things in front of them. The looks used to invite Manning to keep it on the ground, and the Texans Brock Osweiler did plenty of that in the first half. The Texans ran the ball 17 times in the first half alone including three times on third down, two of which were unsuccessful. With the Patriots determined to eliminate the big plays that dogged them at times during the first two weeks, Osweiler checked to several runs and had very limited success as New England pitched a shutout in the opening 30 minutes.
First things first – Belichick always preaches that it's always the team's intention to get off to a fast start but that has really been evident thus far in 2016. During the first quarter thus far this season the Patriots are outscoring their opponents by the score of 34-0, including 10-0 Thursday night. The early points have allowed New England to dictate the way all three games have been played and prevented their inexperienced quarterbacks from having to play from behind.
Special performance – The Patriots enjoyed an edge in all three phases but perhaps none was bigger than in the kicking game. The special teams were not up to speed last week against Miami but they more than made amends just four nights later against the Texans. Ryan Allen had a strong game, forcing Houston to fair catch four punts at the 4, 10, 10, 11, 14 and Jonathan Jones downed another at the 5. The kickoff coverage was even better, forcing a pair of game-changing fumbles to set up touchdowns. After the Patriots took a 3-0 lead, Charles James was hit by Bolden on the ensuing kick and Harmon recovered at the Texans 22. That led to a Brissett touchdown run. In the second half the Patriots kicked another field goal to make it 13-0, and once again the coverage forced a turnover. This time Tyler Irvin was hit by Nate Ebner and Jordan Richards recovered at the Houston 21 to lead to another touchdown to put the game away.
Encore effort – Late last season the Patriots traveled to Houston and picked up a key victory against a playoff team. Jabaal Sheard was dominant picking up two sacks in the prime time affair, in which New England came home with a 27-6 win. Sheard got the better of Houston's Derek Newton in that game and he did so once again under the prime time lights. Sheard finished with a pair of sacks and three tackles on the night while consistently applying pressure to Osweiler.
Taking their shots – Even with Brissett at the controls I felt it was imperative that Belichick allow him to take some chances and throw the ball downfield, especially early on. On third down on the Patriots first possession, Brissett tried to hook up with Chris Hogan on a deep ball down the left sideline. Hogan was covered well on the play and the pass fell incomplete, but I felt it opened things up for the offense. In the second half Brissett tried to hit Hogan on another deep fade and once again overthrew him, this time with Hogan in the clear.
Lone blip – The Patriots were nearly flawless in all areas but one spot that was troublesome was punt returns. Rookie Cyrus Jones got some opportunities to return punts and struggled with ball security and decision making. That was the case at times during training camp and the preseason and that was on display against the Texans. First he chose to run up to try to field a short Shane Lechler punt and worked his way into traffic before colliding with teammate Justin Coleman and James. Although James was flagged for interference on the play, it was an unnecessary risk. Later Jones lost the ball while on the ground on a play that was originally ruled a fumble before being overturned by replay. On his next return he did fumble the ball but fortunately was able to recover it under a pile and the Patriots maintained possession. So, the three times Belichick put him back deep he failed to hold onto the ball on all three. Not surprisingly, Danny Amendola was back deep for Lechler's other three punts.
Gronk is back … sort of – After sitting out the first two games with a hamstring pull, Rob Gronkowski returned to the lineup against Houston. But by no means was Gronkowski back to his normal self. He failed to register a catch and was targeted just once, in the end zone on a play in which he and Brissett seemed to be out of synch. Gronkowski did not play a full-time role, playing about a third of the snaps in the first half before seeing even less action after intermission. It's a plan the Patriots used back in 2014 when he eased his way into action after coming off an injury.
The New England Patriots take on the Houston Texans in a regular season game at Gillette Stadium on Thursday, September 22, 2016.
Questionable clock management – Late in the first half the Patriots were leading 10-0 and had the ball at their own 14 with 1:17 to go. James White rushed for 7 yards on first down and Texans coach Bill O'Brien called timeout. It seemed a Patriots first down was likely yet he still chose to stop the clock. Edelman followed that with an 8-yard run and managed to get out of bounds after moving the chains. White then picked up 5 yards and the Texans called another timeout with 1:00 to go. It seemed like O'Brien was giving Belichick a chance to change his mind and attempt to add some points late in the half with the ball at the 34. Even if Belichick didn't want to take any chances with his young quarterback – he ultimately chose to have Brissett kneel twice – it didn't prevent O'Brien from playing with fire.
Extra points – The Patriots notched their ninth shutout of the Belichick era. The last one came in 2012 when they blanked Miami 28-0. … The Patriots have won 22 straight non-division games against AFC opponents at Gillette Stadium. They also won for the 83rd consecutive time when holding a lead at the half at home. … LeGarrette Blount notched back-to-back 100-yard rushing games, marking the first time the Patriots have accomplished that feat since 2012 when Stevan Ridley turned the trick in wins over Buffalo and Denver. Blount also did it while with Tampa Bay twice, in 2010 and 2011. … Belichick tied Curly Lambeauwith his 226th regular-season win, which ties him for fourth all time. … The coach also improved to 6-0 when using a quarterback making his first career start. The group includes Brissett, Garoppolo, Brady, Matt Cassel, Eric Zeierand Todd Philcox. … In addition to his interception, Jamie Collins recorded a career-high 14 tackles. … Bennett's second-quarter end around was the first rushing attempt of his career. It resulted in a 6-yard pickup.