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Stock Watch: Running backs step up, defense falters

For the second straight week the Patriots capped a positive week of joint practice work with a losing effort in preseason action, this time falling 27-23 to the Texans in Houston.

Tom Brady made his summer debut at NRG Stadium, the site of his most recent Super Bowl conquest. And Rob Gronkowksi made his first preseason appearance since 2012. Both made it through the first-quarter reps seemingly without issue.

But defensively the Patriots continued to allow big plays in summer competition as Houston had plays of 37, 33 and 63 yards on the night. The latter was a catch-and-run by rookie running back D’Onta Foreman that included a slew of missed tackles from the New England defense.

There were plenty of good things to build on, though, as well as areas that Bill Belichick can focus on for improvement as the preseason hits the mid-way point on the way toward the Sept. 7 opener against the Chiefs.

Here’s a look at some of the personnel highs and lows from the loss in Houston that dropped New England to 0-2 on the summer:

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*Rex Burkhead/Dion Lewis/D.J. Foster – *Even with Super Bowl hero James White playing only a cameo role, New England’s passing backs stole the show for the New England offense. Burkhead was the early star, most notably with a 22-yard catch-and-run score from Brady. He finished with seven rushes for 20 yards and three catches for 50 yards. Then Dion Lewis came on and performed well for the second straight week. Clearly back to full health, Lewis had seven rushes for 34 yards and one catch for 9 yards. Foster then came on in the second half and like Burkhead had a pretty touchdown on a 25-yard catch-and-run play from Jimmy Garoppolo. The Patriots must have the deepest, most talented group of passing backs in the NFL. Unfortunately there may not be enough room for all four of them on the roster.

*Stephen Gostkowski – *A week after missing a couple kicks with ugly attempts against Jacksonville (both in practice and game action), the former All-Pro was back in his best form. Gostkowski had a good week kicking in West Virginia and kept it going against Houston hitting field goals from 38, 51 and 42 yards. He also nailed his kickoffs for touchbacks. Gostkowski is hitting the ball extremely well once again and that’s great to see.

Cyrus Jones – The second-year former second-round pick had a tough opener against Jacksonville, giving up a 97-yard touchdown. He’s been under a microscope going back to his struggles last year both on defense and in the return game. But he had a decent effort in Houston. Jones had a couple nice punt returns for a 14.5-yard average, including 32-yard long. He also had nice coverage and tackling at times on defense. There are still issues, including a decision to catch a punt running toward the goal line inside the 20 as well as missed tackle, but Jones had a nice bounce back effort this week. Belichick said afterwards that the young punt returner “made something out of nothing a couple times.” Jones ball security on returns has been better all summer.

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Malcolm Butler –* *The former Pro Bowl corner has had a solid summer on the practice field but his preseason game debut was less than impressive. He had decent coverage but seemed to lose track of the ball on a 37-yard completion from Tom Savage to Bruce Ellington. Butler’s second drive was more questionable, allowing a pair of completions to young receiver Jaelen Strong, the second for a 2-yard touchdown crossing the back of the end zone.

Pass rush –* *New England’s defensive end position and pass rush are the biggest question the team faces this summer. With Rob Ninkovich retired and rookies Deatrich Wise Jr. (head) and Derek Rivers (reported season-ending knee injury) hurt, there just isn’t a lot at the position right now. Kony Ealy continues to be lackluster early in his time in New England. Early on against Houston late undrafted rookie signing Caleb Kidder was getting reps on the right end spot with fellow undrafted rookie Harvey Langi rushing off the left side. Trey Flowers was dressed but did not play. The bodies and the production from the pass rush/defensive edge wasn’t good enough against the Texans and bears watching from now straight into the regular season.

*Jimmy Garoppolo – *New England’s fourth-year backup had a nice preseason opener against Jacksonville in the losing effort. This time around, Garoppolo wasn’t as impressive. He made a terrible decision and throw on a boot in the fourth-quarter that resulted in a Denzel Rice interception and 39-yard return to the 4 that set up Houston’s game-winning touchdown. Garoppolo also got blown up on a strip-sack in the third quarter, a play in which either the pass protection call was wrong or he needs to be more aware of the possible unaccounted-for rusher. Garoppolo’s numbers – 15-of-23 for 145 yards with one touchdown and one interception – don’t look awful, but it wasn’t his best performance.

What do you think of our lists? Additions or alterations? Let us know with a comment below!

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