When the Patriots run:
It’s difficult to predict what the Patriots will get out of their running game early in the season, primarily because they have so many banged-up running backs. Neither first-round pick Sony Michel (knee) nor Rex Burkhead (knee) played in any of the team’s four preseason games, and although both were practicing last week, their availability against Houston is uncertain. Burkhead was not on the injury report, however, so he will likely play. Even if they’re available, you still have to wonder how much each will have to offer. It’s also unclear if the team’s running game will improve or take a step back now that Trent Brown has replaced Nate Solder as the starting left tackle. The Patriots may have to lean on Jeremy Hill against the Texans. Despite numerous injuries last season, Houston ranked 13th among NFL defenses against the run.
When the Patriots pass:
The noteworthy item here is the void in New England’s receiving corps created by the four-game suspension slot receiver Julian Edelman received for violating the NFL’s policy against performance-enhancing drugs. Edelman missed all of the 2017 season because of a torn ACL. His absence wouldn’t be as much of a concern if the Patriots still had Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola on the roster, but the team parted ways with each player in the offseason. Cooks and Amendola were the team’s No. 2 and No. 3 receivers, respectively, last season. Expect the Houston defense to pay extra attention to New England tight end Rob Gronkowski, perhaps using newcomer Tyrann Mathieu in coverage, so the Patriots will be relying heavily on Phillip Dorsett and Chris Hogan. James White also figures to be prominently featured out of the backfield. Houston linebackers Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus are two of the top pass rushers in the league and they’ve caused problems in the past.
When the Texans run:
The Texans won’t have second-year running back D’Onta Foreman, who is still rehabbing from the ruptured Achilles’ tendon he suffered last year, but that doesn’t mean Houston won’t try to run the football. Among NFL teams, Houston is No. 2 in rushing attempts during Bill O’Brien’s four years as the team’s head coach. Running back Lamar Miller, the team’s leading rusher last season, has slimmed down in an attempt to regain some of the burst he had earlier in his career, but New England’s biggest concern may be quarterback Deshaun Watson’s mobility. The Texans were third in rushing (138 yards per game) when Watson suffered a season-ending knee injury last season. The Patriots may have the edge up front, however, with newcomer Danny Shelton joining Malcom Brown and Lawrence Guy going against a weak Houston offensive line that could be breaking in four new starters.
When the Texans pass:
Can Deshaun Watson replicate the success he had last year before a knee injury suffered in practice brought an end to his season after seven games (six starts)? Watson had 19 touchdown passes in those seven games, and the Texans averaged 39.0 points per contest in his final five starts. That included a 36-33 loss to New England in which Watson completed 22 of 33 passes for 301 yards and two touchdowns. Watson has one of the NFL’s top receiving threats in DeAndre Hopkins, who led the NFL with 13 receiving TDs last season. Hopkins also ranked first in the NFL with 17 receptions of at least 25 yards. Will Fuller is looking to stay healthy and establish some consistency on the other side to give a complement to Hopkins. The addition of defensive end Adrian Clayborn is one of the reasons New England’s pass rush could be much improved this season, but the group will need to be disciplined attacking the dangerous Watson.
With Stephen Gostkowski and Ryan Allen the Patriots appear to be solid in the kicking game. Both performed well in the preseason. Allen averaged 48.9 yards per punt, and Gostkowski connected on seven of his eight field goal attempts. The addition of Cordarrelle Patterson gives New England a scary threat on kickoff returns, but punt returns is the area that needs the most improvement. The Patriots ranked 18th in that category last season. The Texans cut veteran punter Shane Lechler in favor of rookie Trevor Daniel last week. Special teams were a major problem for the Texans a year ago, and nothing was worse than Houston’s kickoff coverage, which finished last. Former Patriots special teams coach Brad Seely was brought in to help that sagging area. Place kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn has a strong leg but missed five field goals and three PATs during the 2017 season.
The Patriots are starting the season at home, and playing in front of the home crowd can often provide a significant advantage. Much of Houston’s success in this game — and this season — could hinge on defensive end J.J. Watt, who has missed most of the last two seasons with injuries. He’s been named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year three times but has been limited to eight games (23 tackles, 1.5 sacks) over the last two years. Watt, 29, collected 38 sacks during the 2014 and 2015 seasons, and has registered 20.5 sacks in a season twice during his career. For what it’s worth, the Texans are 0-4 against the Patriots since Bill O’Brien became Houston’s head coach. The Texans failed to score more than 16 points in three of those four matchups.