The Patriots players were off on Tuesday while the coaching staff got underway with preparations for the Houston Texans. The Texans sit atop the AFC South with a 7-4 record and there's a good chance this won't be the last time these two teams meet this season. But the Texans haven't beaten New England in a decade and will be looking for just the kind of win that couple propel them to the next level.
Any time two division leaders meet in December it's an important game for playoff seeding, and with the Ravens playing fantastic football and sitting just one game behind the Patriots, this is a win the Texans will badly want and need. Despite a stellar defense and play-making special teams, the Patriots have issues of their own to work out and should see a good opportunity for a rejuvenating performance.
It will all start with Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson who is having another good season with 20 touchdowns to seven interceptions. He's also the third-leading rusher on the team and has five rushing touchdowns. Watson is a threat every time he touches the ball and presents a number of challenges for the Patriots.
"He's very, very good," said Bill Belichick. "He's a very accurate downfield passer, he's made some great throws on double-moves, seam routes, post patterns, go routes, things like that. And of course, we all know he's a very athletic guy with the ball in his hands. So, [he is] dangerous, can score from anywhere at any time, doesn't take long. It'll be a big challenge for us for 60 minutes, but even with a few seconds to go, it's a long way from – any game's a long way from being over if he has his hands on the ball."
Playing the full 60 minutes would appear to be a point of emphasis this week as Belichick pointed out all the impressive comebacks that the Texans have had this season.
"Look, the New Orleans game, they're down by six with no timeouts, they've got the ball on their own 25-yard line, score in 14 seconds – the two big plays to [DeAndre] Hopkins and [Kenny] Stills. Then the Atlanta game, down by eight, two minutes to go, score on a 50-yard pass on a double-move to [Will] Fuller. Fourth-and-one situations, Watson's had a couple big keepers like he did against New Orleans and scored from about the 20-yard line or so on a zone read and he kept the ball."
The Patriots don't need to look back more than a few weeks ago to when Lamar Jackson got their defense on their heels and kept them there the entire game. Watson might not be as explosive as Jackson, but the Patriots will need to be better prepared for a running quarterback this time around.
Steve Belichick pointed out how fluid those plays are and how hard they can be to prepare for.
"Their offense doesn't really draw those up; they just kind of happen as the play plays out," said the safeties coach. "So, got to rely on the players' instincts, making the right decision, not coming out of coverage, making sure you lock on your guy. That obviously adds a whole other element to it with these dangerous receivers being able to get open. I mean, even if you're covering Hopkins, he's still open because of his strong hands and catch radius. So, it's a huge challenge. Some quarterbacks scramble to throw; some quarterbacks scramble to run. It could depend on if there's space in the middle of the defense to run. So, there's so many elements to those scramble plays. They're so tough to defend, but really it's all on those players to trust their instincts and just do the best they can on those plays."
Defensively, the Texans lost JJ Watt for the season to injury after trading away Jadaveon Clowney earlier in the year. Romeo Crennel's defense might lack those big name players up front but Josh McDaniels still sees the same kind of unit the former Patriots coordinator has always produced.
"Romeo – the one thing you know is they're going to be sound, they're going to play really good fundamental football, they don't beat themselves, they rarely give up big plays, they do a great job of communicating and disguising what they're doing so that you don't get – you don't have an advantage in that area," said McDaniels on Tuesday. "And they play really hard. That has been the hallmark of every defense that I've ever competed against Romeo with and that is the same thing you can say about this group. They're well-coached, they play hard, they're never out of position and they do the things that they're being asked to do within the scheme extremely well and they play physical."
The Texans defense isn't quite as intimidating as it used to be, ranked 26th in DVOA, and for a Patriots offense that is looking to find some consistency and get back to putting up close to 30 points to game on the board, it might be just what the Hoodie ordered. But McDaniels expects the Patriots will have to put together some of their best execution of the season.
"They challenge you in a lot of different ways," said McDaniels. "The one thing that you know you're going to have to do is you're going to have to consistently execute against this team because they're not going to give it to you in three plays. You're going to have to string together eight, 10, 12 plays of good, solid execution and you're going to have to stay out of long yardage, avoid penalties and negative plays to give yourself an opportunity to put together scoring drives. That's the challenge. "
- Points: 27.3 - 5th
- Third Down: 37.3 percent - 17th
- Overall DVOA - 10th
- Rushing DVOA - 12th
- Passing DVOA - 21st
- Red Zone: 47.8 percent - 25th
- Points: 10.6 - 1st
- Third Down: 18.9 percent - 1st
- Overall DVOA - 1st
- Passing DVOA - 1st
- Rushing DVOA - 9th
- Red Zone: 40.0 percent - 1st
Special Teams: DVOA - 13th
Conference Call Sound Bites
Steve Belichick on what makes Stephon Gilmore so good:
"Steph, he keeps getting more and more comfortable the more time that he spends here. He's always put in a ton of extra work, extra film study, off-the-field preparation to give himself a good chance to make plays on the field on Sunday's. So, I've always been impressed with how diligent he is as an off-the-field worker. It's always translated to Sunday's for him this year. He puts in the work during the week. He practices hard, he doesn't take any days off, he's always out there, so I'm really not surprised by Steph's success because of how much hard work he puts in. It's good to see it coming to him."