For the second time in three weeks to open the 2016 season the Patriots played with a quarterback making his first NFL start. And for the second time in that same span the first-timer led a well-rounded team victory.
With Jimmy Garoppolo inactive with a shoulder injury, this time around it was third-round rookie Jacoby Brissett with the successful debut, an efficient, dominating, out-witting of the Texans in a 27-0 shutout win.
With just one game to go on Tom Brady's four-game Deflategate suspension the Patriots improved to 3-0 and sit comfortably atop the AFC East.
Expected to be one of the best teams in football this fall, the Patriots are proving to be just that without Brady or even his backup. As a team, they've gotten the job done.
Bill Belichick talked all week about needing a complementary performance in all three phases of the game and that's what he got early on Thursday night.
After an initial three-and-out, Brissett got things going on his second series as a starter. After a fortuitous third-down conversion via a penalty, the rookie ran on an option play for 13 yards. On an ensuing third-down the third stringer connected with fellow rookie Malcolm Mitchell for a nice 27-yard catch-and-run down to the 15. The drive stalled but New England came away with the 3-0 lead on Stephen Gostkowski's 24-yard kick.
Special teams then added to their contributions on the ensuing kickoff as Brandon Bolden forced a Charles James fumble that was recovered by Duron Harmon at the Texans 22, though it took a Belichick challenge to overturn a down-by-contact ruling on the field.
Following a false start, Brissett used his feet with a designed run on a naked boot to the right side with Mitchell running off the only Houston defender on that side of the formation. Bill O'Brien would say later that the Patriots "caught us in something" on what turned into a 27-yard Brissett touchdown run to take the 10-0 advantage lead late in the first quarter that would hold up into halftime.
In a strange situation, the same scenario played out in the third quarter as the first. Brissett led a nice drive to field goal for a 13-0 lead. The ensuing kickoff had Nate Ebner force a Tyler Ervin fumble that was recovered by Jordan Richards at the Texans 21. Not long after, following a couple Houston pass interference calls in the end zone on Martellus Bennett, LeGarrette Blount punched in a 1-yard score to extend the lead to 20-0 with just more than five minutes to play in the third.
The New England Patriots take on the Houston Texans in a regular season game at Gillette Stadium on Thursday, September 22, 2016.
While the offense and special teams units were working together to pile up the points, the New England defense was stifling the Texans, who didn't get into Patriots territory until late in the third quarter. Houston only had 284 yards of total yards, never really challenging the scoreboard.
In many ways it was another signature win for a doubted Belichick-coached team. Brissett was certainly a part of the story.
"I think it was a great team win," Brissett said, adding that he didn't really have nerves heading into his first start. "The score doesn't reflect how tough this game was.
"Hats off to our defense, special teams and offense."
Belichick was clearly pleased with the performance, and how his team got to that success through its preparation efforts.
"This is a really satisfying win," Belichick said, praising the work his assistant coaches and players put forth on a short week. "Just really proud of the way that these guys competed. I thought we tried to do what we wanted to do for 60 minutes. Just so proud of the way our guys competed. They really worked hard at it and happy for the success that they had tonight."
The coach was certainly happy with the performance he got out of his rookie quarterback.
"I think he handled himself great," Belichick said of Brissett. "Last week, this week, all week, every day. He's done nothing but come in here and work as hard as he possibly can. He's just a hard-working kid that's really dedicated to doing what's right for the team."
While there were plenty of players with rising stock in Thursday night's win and very few who didn't take a step forward in the impressive victory, here's a look at some of the personnel highs and lows from the shutout:
*Jabaal Sheard – *The veteran defensive end has been quiet to open the year coming off a summer knee injury. But a move to the left side and a matchup with Derek Newton, a guy he had success against last year, gave Sheard a Week 3 boost. He sacked Brock Osweiler for an 11-yard loss on Houston's second third-down of their opening series, forcing a punt. He added a 10-yard sack in the fourth quarter. He seems to enjoy battles against Newton and was one of a number of defensive players who stepped up in victory.
*Jacoby Brissett – *The rookie starting quarterback wasn't perfect, but he sure was impressive. He made very good decisions with the football both as a passer and running option plays. His 27-yard touchdown was a thing of beauty. Overall Brissett completed 11 of 19 passes for 103 yards. He was sacked once, and did not throw either a touchdown or an interception, finishing with a 72.9 rating. Brissett ran very well, under control and yet making plays without taking hits, finishing with 48 yards on eight attempts. The young passer showed impressive poise.
Jamie Collins – With Dont'a Hightower missing his second straight game to a knee injury, Collins continued to call the defensive plays and then make them. The linebacker notched a pretty interception, his second pick in five days. He was also all over the field, including a great tackle for no-gain on a swing pass to Jonathan Grimes on third down in the fourth quarter. Collins finished with 14 tackles, including seven solos, twice his next-closest teammate in each category. The name Luke Kuechly gets thrown around when talking contract comparables for Collins, well this was a Kuechly-like performance against Houston.
Special teams – The third phase was a big part of the win. Gostkowski was perfect on his field goals and his kickoffs. Ryan Allen had his best game of the year, punting seven times for a 47.6 average, both gross and net. He had six of those down inside the 20, including five inside the 10. Field position was a huge factor in the game and the punter/kicker/coverage combo nailed it for New England.
LeGarrette Blount/O-line early – Belichick made it quite clear last week that a lot of the success running the ball in the second half by Blount against the Dolphins came thanks to the line. So, when the ground game struggles like it did against the Texans, especially early on, both the back and his blockers get the blame. Clearly this is nit-picking, but the running game couldn't get much going early. Blount had seven carries for 12 yards in the first half. He broke things open in the second half again this week, including a 41-yard touchdown run on the way to a 104-yard night. But if there are areas to be improved, the early-game running game would be on the list.
*Cyrus Jones – *The rookie returner seemingly settled down during the preseason after some major issues with muffed punts in training camp practice. Thursday night he was a bit of a heart attack again. Though a penalty on the Texans, he caught a punt in traffic early in the first quarter. Then he put one on the ground later that was actually ruled down by contact. The hold-your-breath moments continued into the third quarter when he lost the ball after a short return, only to reach out and pull it in to avoid the turnover. Still, Jones brought stress to the return game all night long, which isn't what the coaches are looking for.
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