LeGarrette Blount should get a lot of work Thursday. (Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
Here’s what you have to know when it comes to Thursday’s Texans-Patriots contest at Gillette Stadium:
WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN THE BALL
As was the case in last weeks’ win over the Dolphins, New England will lean on LeGarrette Blount (51 carries for 193 yards — fourth best in the AFC — for 3.8 yards per carry and a pair of touchdowns) for the bulk of the between-the-tackles production. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Blount isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It’s easy to get frustrated with a guy who will hit the line and not go anywhere half the time. But the payoff comes later on when he is able to bulldoze a tired opposing defense. He’s a closer, and gets high-value yards late in games when he’s tasked with leading a four-minute offense. Given the uncertainty at quarterback, it’s anyones guess how the Patriots are going operate on offense Thursday night. But if we operate with the presumption that it’s going to be Jacoby Brissett under center, that will mean another opportunity for Blount.
On the other side of the ball, the Houston run defense has been up-and-down the first two games, but is probably the more vulnerable of the two when you stack it against the Texans pass defense. The Texans held Chicago to 73 rushing yards in a Week 1 win, but the Chiefs gashed them for 112 yards on just 19 carries (5.9 yards per attempt) this past Sunday. Overall, Houston is 12th in the league against the run, having allowed an average of 96 yards per game. At the same time, the Teans have yielded 4.9 yards per carry, 29th in the league. Only four teams have run less against the Texans (opponents have just 39 rushing attempts through two games), but the numbers suggest that when they do, there are yards to be had. Ultimately, based on previous games (which is a bit of a crapshoot anyway because there’s so much uncertainty at quarterback), if the Patriots are able to hit 30 carries and 105-plus yards, they should come out of this one a winner.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS THE BALL
There’s so much uncertainty here, I’m not exactly sure where to begin. Is it going to be Garoppolo, Brissett or Julian Edelman? There’s not much that would surprise us at this point. Let’s assume it’ll be Brissett for the bulk of the game, as that scenario probably makes the most sense. Don’t look for anything crazy — that backside throw to Martellus Bennett that the tight end stiffarmed into a big gain is probably going to be as nuts as it gets. Short dump-offs to James White, Danny Amendola and Edelman are probably the move, with plenty of underneath stuff at the second level as the Patriots try and take advantage of an occasionally vulnerable middle of the field with some crossing routes. But if Brissett ends up with more than 30 pass attempts in this one, I’d say something has gone horribly wrong for New England.
You have to take into account who it has faced, but the Houston pass defense has been pretty impressive out of the gate. The Texans defense is first in the NFL in sacks (nine), third in third-down percentage (26) and total passing yards allowed per game (179), and fifth in opposing passer rating (71.7). While sacks aren’t everything, a sizable portion of those stats coming from their ability to get pressure from multiple spots, including defensive ends J.J. Watt and Jadaveon Clowney and old pal Vince Wilfork over the nose. Watt had 1.5 sacks in Sunday’s win against the Chiefs and became the second-fastest player in NFL history to get to 75 career sacks. (Only Reggie White did it quicker.) The three-time Defensive Player of the Year, who underwent offseason back surgery, has powered a Houston defense that has gone six straight quarters without allowing a touchdown. Bottom line? This is a good group that is tough to pass against.
WHEN THE TEXANS RUN THE BALL
Houston is reaping the benefits of Miami’s puzzling decision to cut ties with Lamar Miller this offseason. And while Miller hasn’t been an All-Pro through the first two games, he’s given them some offensive balance that has opened things up for Osweiler. And given the fact that Bill O’Brien made his bones as an offensive coordinator with Bill Belichick, it’s probably not a shock to see that Miller has been tasked with doing much of the same sort of thing as Blount. He’s not as big (he’s 5-foot-11 and 215 pounds, while Blount is 6-foot-1 and *ahem* 245 pounds), but through the first two games, they’ve achieved similar results after being used in much the same fashion. Through two games, Miller has rushed for 189 yards (fifth-best in the AFC) on 53 carries, or 3.6 yards per carry. Not overwhelming numbers, but certainly comparable to what Blount has done in New England in that he’s been able to loosen up some opposing defenses, get some big yards at important times and chew up some clock. Miller had 45 yards on 12 carries in the fourth quarter against the Chiefs, accounting for more than half his total yardage for the afternoon. If the Texans are able to build a second-half lead, he’ll be a big part of their attempts to close this one one. Other than having some issues in the opener with Arizona’s David Johnson, the Patriots have done a good job locking things down against the run over the first two games of the season. New England is ninth in the league, having allowed an average of 81 yards through the the first two contests.
WHEN THE TEXANS PASS THE BALL
Few teams have taken as many deep shots through the first two weeks of the season than the Texans. Brock Osweiler loves airing it out to the likes of DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller, who form the nucleus of the Houston passing game. Fuller, a rookie out of Notre Dame, loves to try and take the top off the defense: according to Pro Football Focus, 10 of Fuller’s 18 targets have been 20-plus yards downfield, the highest total in the NFL. In addition, the average depth of target has been 23.5 yards, the fourth highest in the NFL and the highest of anyone with 10-plus targets. It’s a group that will test the New England pass defense, and Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan in particular. The phrase “GTFB” could machine appearance on Thursday night. The Patriots pass defense stumbled a bit in the second half against the Dolphins, but big passing yardage isn’t always a recipe for success against New England.
This is a match of two of the better kickers in the league. Houston’s Nick Novak hit four field goals in last week’s 19-12 win over the Chiefs, and has already connected on 7-of-8 field goals this year. That’s after going 18-for-21 last season. Meanwhile, Stephen Gostkowski missed a key field-goal opportunity late against Miami, but is still 4-for-5 on field goals, 6-for-6 on extra points, and was good enough in the opener against the Cardinals to be named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week. As for the rest of the Texans, punter Shane Lechler is in the top half of the league with his 49.2 average and 38.9 net, while rookie Tyler Ervin has handled the kick and punt return duties for the first two games. The first-year speedster out of San Jose State has averaged 22.4 yards per kick return (five chances) and 5.9 yards per punt return (seven chances). For New England, punter Ryan Allen has bene uncharacteristically ragged through the first two contests of the year with a 36.2 average (31st in the league) and a 34.8 net (30th). Danny Amendola has been good when it comes to punt returns (a 10.3 average on his four chances), while Cyrus Jones and Matt Slater have split the kick return duties with one each.
THE PATRIOTS ARE IN TROUBLE IF… they can’t get any sort of offensive traction with whoever comes out as the starting quarterback. The defense also needs to find out what happened in the second half against the Dolphins and make the necessary adjustments.
THE TEXANS ARE IN TROUBLE IF… the Patriots are able to find some sort of successful offensive combination with whatever quarterback rolls out there, and New England is able to get short fields thanks to turnovers and/or good work from their special teams.
BY THE NUMBERS: 5-0 — Per Gil Brandt, quarterbacks who make the first professional start of their careers under Belichick are 5-0. Brissett could join a group that includes Todd Philcox, Eric Zeier, Tom Brady, Matt Cassel and Garoppolo.
UNDER THE RADAR PERFORMER: Benardrick McKinney doesn’t get the same pub as some of his high-profile teammates like Watt, Clowney and old pal Vince Wilfork, but it was interesting to hear Belichick go out of his way to talk him up this week as a a second-year linebacker on his way to “becoming one of the better linebackers in the league at a lot of things; the run, the pass, blitzing.” The 6-foot-4, 246-pounder out of Mississippi State has a pair of sacks and 39 tackles in two games. With Brian Cushing on the sidelines because of a knee injury, he’s become one of the most important parts of the Houston defense, especially with the Patriots’ offensive focus likely falling on Blount. It’ll be interesting to see how the 23-year-old responds to the challenge.
QUOTE OF NOTE: “I’m a football coach. I’m not a doctor. The medical staff is the medical staff. I coach the team; the medical people handle the injuries. They don’t call plays; I don’t do surgery. We’ve got a great deal there. It works out good.” —Belichick, asked about balancing injury status and personnel moves, 9/20/16
PREDICTION: It’s been a weird week all around, and so it’ll be no surprise if it’s a weird and sloppy game. The quality of Thursday night games have almost always been crappy, and given the quick turnaround and the fact that it’s so early in the season, this won’t be one of the prettier contests of the year. Provided the Patriots go with Brissett under center, their goal will be to keep the game as small and as manageable as possible. Don’t look for them to open things up and try and get in a shootout with the Texans. New England needs to focus on getting quality yards from Blount in the early going so second and third down can stay manageable, minimize potential turnovers from Brissett, win the time of possession battle and stay on the field for extended stretches with runs and short, quick passes. On defense, they need to guard against the deep ball, and make sure Miller doesn’t get started. If they can play good, complementary football from the jump, they’ll be able to win this thing and move to 3-0. If this game was in Houston, I’d probably be inclined to take the Texans. But instead, I’ll take the Patriots. My take: New England 16, Houston 13.