Devin McCourty leads the Patriots secondary against a potent Texans receiving corps. (Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports)
FOXBORO — While the Patriots held on to win on Sunday against the Dolphins, many fans recall what happened in the second half and might rightfully feel nervous with the Texans vertical passing game coming to town.
In the second half Sunday, Ryan Tannehill carved up the Patriots defense for 273 yards and two touchdowns as the Dolphins nearly erased a 28-point third-quarter hole and came close to tying the game in the closing seconds.
More to the point, this week has been all about overcoming adversity and distraction. The adversity is losing a starting quarterback to injury in the first half and preparing on a short week. The distraction, mostly from the outside, comes from the uncertainty of who will be running the offense.
But these are the Patriots and there’s never a challenge too big to be embraced, something Bill Belichick once again reminded his team of this week.
“I just think it’s complete belief and faith in us as a team,” Devin McCourty said Tuesday. “I think as players, Bill always says that the coaches coach, but the players have to go out there and play. When you’re on a team and you believe everybody is out there trying to work and trying to get better, everybody wants to play here. When guys get the opportunity to go out there and play, you believe they’ve been waiting for this, so I think we all understand what we have to do to win.
“I think sometimes, you worry about so many other things that really don’t translate or have anything to do with winning and that throws you off. I think here, we have to focus on what we have to do to try to win. No matter what happens, it’s always a clear cut message. When we came in here [Monday] and moved on to the Texans, Bill stood up there in the meeting and said, ‘We need to do this to win.’ I think that becomes a focus throughout the week. This is what we need to do to win, and if something comes up and it doesn’t pertain to those things, we’ve got to kind of forget about it and move on.”
Belichick has ultimate trust and faith that his players are mature enough not to worry about the quarterback situation. That’s his job. The job of the defensive players is to be concerned about Brock Osweiler and the Texans. And do to that, the players must have faith in each other to be focused on the mission and the game plan.
“I think that’s huge. For us, that starts in April. You come in here and guys are working out together, you go through OTAs, you go through training camp,” McCourty said. “We do a ton of things together. We’re in this building 12-13 hours per day. You build trust in guys. You go out there, you practice hard, and if guys do it on the practice field, you know they can do it in a game. We can’t go out there and play a bunch of games per week, but if you go out there and you practice hard and execute at a high level, I believe that you can go do that in a game. I think the effort and the time we put into being able to be prepared in practice carries over to the game.”
Jarvis Landry had 137 yards on 10 catches Sunday. DeVante Parker had 106 yards on eight grabs. Jordan Cameron and Kenny Stills had the two touchdown receptions. Now Houston comes to town with DeAndre Hopkins and rookies Will Fuller and Braxton Miller. Those are three weapons that figure prominently in Osweiler’s arsenal (though Miller is battling a hamstring issue).
On Hopkins, McCourty has last season to draw upon. In the Patriots 27-6 win on Dec. 13, 2015, the Patriots secondary held Hopkins to three catches on six targets for 52 yards and no touchdowns. He did catch a meaningless 40-yarder in the fourth quarter with the Patriots in complete command.
“He’s a vertical guy, gets down the field,” McCourty said. “I think the biggest thing he does is just catch the ball. I don’t care if there are defenders on top of him jumping with him, if there are two guys jumping with him, he does a great job of just locating the football and being able to go up in traffic and get it. We played them towards the end of the season last year so we got to watch a whole year’s worth of really top-10 highlight plays of guys being there in coverage and him just going up and getting the football. We’ve talked a lot this week about – it’s important to be there, but it’s more important to make a play and get the ball out. Guys are there on him in coverage, but he somehow comes down with the ball whether it’s deep, whether it’s in cuts, comebacks, he does a great job and has great hands just to go out there and be able to pluck the ball out of the air.”
Then there’s Fuller. The rookie out of Notre Dame has had a big impact in the first two games, catching nine passes for a team-leading 211 yards and a touchdown.
“He creates and deserves attention,” McCourty said. “You can’t just worry about Hopkins. You do that, and he’ll burn you for two 30, 50-yard bombs. If you watch throughout the preseason and the first two games, he’s been the guy that’s been able to get vertical and get behind the defense and has big catches for them. You can see they have designed plays to get him the ball and let him use his speed, even throwing him quick screen plays that make a guy or two miss and he goes in and gets in the end zone.
“It’s always hard when you’ve got two vertical threats out there because you’ve got to respect both of them. You can’t just be out there worrying about one guy going deep because if you shut that down, the other guy will beat you going deep three or four times. It forces the secondary to really be on top of their game across the board.”