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Scouting the Matchup: Short passing game key against Texans

WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN

The Patriots need more production in their running game as they continue to work newcomers Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead into the mix with James White and Dion Lewis. Until someone shows the consistency to handle lead-back duties, the Patriots will employ a committee approach. The Texans boast arguably the league's deepest front seven and finished 12th against the run in 2016. Linebackers Whitney Mercilus and Benardrick McKinney fill the gaps well, while rookie second-round pick Zach Cunningham provides solid sideline-to-sideline coverage to help set the edge in the run game. The Texans shut down Cincinnati's run game after getting gouged by rookie Leonard Fournette for 100 yards and a touchdown in Week 1. The Patriots need to create mismatches with their backs in the passing game, as they did in New Orleans. Advantage: TEXANS

WHEN THE TEXANS RUN

The production by Houston's running backs has been sporadic at best. With Alfred Blue still nursing an ankle sprain, the Texans are leaning on veteran Lamar Miller and rookie D'Onta Foreman, neither of whom has provided much spark. Their most dangerous runner might be rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson, who rushed for 67 yards and a touchdown in Houston's Week 2 win over the Bengals. Depth is an issue for the Patriots with linebacker Dont'a Hightower slowed by a knee injury, which puts more pressure on Elandon Roberts and Kyle Van Noy. The Texans lack the speed New England faced over the first two weeks, so veteran run-stopper David Harris may see an expanded role Sunday given the Texans run-heavy approach. The Patriots need to limit big plays and, more importantly, contain Watson, who can break free and set the tone with his running ability. * Advantage: PATRIOTS*

WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS

The Patriots still need to find their offensive identity, which has been difficult with so many injuries among their wide receivers. Tom Brady has yet to develop a strong rapport with newcomer Brandin Cooks, who may become the focal point for the foreseeable future with Rob Gronkowski and Chris Hogan banged up following last week's win in New Orleans. Houston's dangerous front seven includes edge rushers J.J. Watt, an all-world talent, and budding stars Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney, who has blossomed since moving to defensive end. Protecting Brady will be the No. 1 challenge for New England's offensive line, but with Houston's linebackers occasionally struggling in pass coverage, it may work in Brady's favor to get his running backs involved in the passing game to make up for the lack of depth at receiver and keep Houston's pass rush at bay. In the playoffs last year the Texans got pressure using the edge guys up the middle, so getting rid of the ball quickly will once again be to Brady’s advantage. Advantage: PATRIOTS

WHEN THE TEXANS PASS

The Tom Savage experiment at quarterback didn't last long, as head coach Bill O'Brien pulled the plug early in Week 1 and appears to have trust in the rookie Watson, who was solid but not spectacular in his first NFL start against the Bengals. Houston's passing game relies heavily on durable wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who has been targeted 29 times in two weeks. He's been the lone bright spot in the passing game for Houston and will continue to be the focal point Sunday. New England's secondary is its strength; the Patriots excel in nickel coverage and prefer to limit big plays in lieu of rushing more than three defenders at a time. That hasn’t worked well in the first two weeks as both the Chiefs and Saints picked up large chunks of yardage at times. With Watson's options limited beyond Hopkins, the Patriots could afford to be more aggressive up front, putting more pressure on the corners in one-on-one coverage. Houston just doesn’t have the depth in the passing game to do much damage. Advantage: PATRIOTS

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Texans were brutal in coverage last year and haven't been much better in 2017. They allowed kick returns of 41 and 36 yards against the Bengals in addition to a 33-yard punt return by Adam Jones. Can the Patriots take advantage? Losing Julian Edelman and Cyrus Jones has limited their production in the return game, leaving them scrambling to find someone who can give them a spark, which would also be beneficial to the offense, putting less pressure on Brady to lead long, time-consuming scoring drives. The Texans boast Tyler Ervin, a threat on both kickoff and punt returns. With so few options, the Patriots may turn to Lewis, who has handled kicks thus far but could add punts to his duties against Houston's porous coverage units. Advantage: PATRIOTS

OTHER FACTORS

The Patriots have had Houston's number through the years, winning eight of the nine meetings dating back to 2003, and have never lost to the Texans at home. The Patriots still have a sour taste in their mouths after losing their home opener two weeks ago, a rare loss to an AFC rival at Gillette Stadium. The Chiefs were the first AFC team to beat Brady at home since the Jets did it in 2006 and the first road team to beat New England in a home opener at Gillette. The Patriots haven't started 0-2 at home since Bill Belichick's first season in 2000, and it's hard to imagine it happening again this year with Houston relying on a rookie quarterback against a defensive-minded coach lauded for his ability to confuse inexperienced players in big spots. Coming off Sunday's win, the Patriots appear to have righted the ship following their Week 1 letdown. Advantage: PATRIOTS

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