New England Patriots, Tom Brady must pass another test against Houston Texans

By The Sports Xchange  |  Sept. 20, 2017 at 11:10 PM
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A week after Tom Brady and the New England Patriots got back on course by taking advantage of a New Orleans Saints defense that ranked dead last against the pass a year ago and is well on its way to the same spot this fall, New England's offense faces a much tougher test on Sunday in against J.J. Watt and the Houston Texans.

Houston (1-1) led the NFL in total defense last fall while fielding the No. 2 unit against the pass. Through two weeks this season the unit, now led by first-year defensive coordinator and former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel, has the No. 6 defense in football and the No. 2 group against the pass.

So while the Patriots (1-1) took care of business with 36 points in New Orleans, it was more expected success than proving a point. This week, though, is a different story.

Although the final score doesn't show it, Houston gave Brady and Co. plenty of problems in the divisional playoff last January.

The Texans notched two interceptions and pressured Brady to the tune of two sacks and eight quarterback hits in a game that was just a 17-13 New England lead at halftime.

Houston couldn't overcome its Brock Osweiler-led offensive ineptitude, though, and a 24-16 Patriots lead in the fourth quarter ballooned to a 34-16 victory for the eventual Super Bowl champions.

But the inside pass rush that was such an issue for the New England line last winter -- an approach which could now include Watt as well as Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney put forth on center David Andrews and Co. of the Patriots-- and the Texans are far more of a potential measuring stick,

Does Houston, which has only three sacks in two games, have one of the more talented groups of pass rushers that the Patriots will face all year.

"Yeah, I'll say," coach Bill Belichick responded. "They're good. They can power rush, they can speed rush, good counters, they run games well, good technique players, they're well-coached. Mike (Vrabel) does enough things to keep you off-balance. I'm not looking out there and saying 'Well, we've never seen this before.' There's some three-man rush, there's some four-man rush, there's some five-man rush, there's a lot of straight rush, there's power rush, there's games, multiple games.

"You're never sure exactly which one of those things you're going to get. When you start mixing them together, you don't end up with the same thing repeatedly, so it's always something else different. A different type of rush, a different type of coverage, maybe players aligned in different positions, even though it might be the same players but just different matchups. They create a lot of problems."

New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels says the moving guys around the front and search for favorable matchups along the line is a major trend in the NFL in recent years.

Houston found success with it last January and it's part of what he and his offense will be preparing for this week.

"They've got a great front, " McDaniels said. "They've got a great defense; well-coached, very fundamentally sound, they can create a lot of matchup situations that they try to take advantage of and try to create some confusion with what they do defensively.

"They've got really good rushers, they blitz well, they've got good cover players, they make things hard on you and they don't give up big plays. So, that's the hallmark of a great defense, and that's what we have in front of us this week. It will be a big challenge for us."

Coming off his 447-yard, three-touchdown performance against the Saints, Brady knows things might not come quite so easily against a Houston team the Patriots faced twice last season and held joint practices with this summer at The Greenbrier in West Virginia before a preseason game barely a month ago.

"We've played them a bunch the last few years, practicing against them and kind of knowing their staff," Brady said. "They have a very tough, hard-nosed team. They have some incredible players, one of the best defenses in the league. They've been in the top five for the last three years. They're really good, really talented, they play hard, they're disciplined, they play with a lot of fundamentals (and) they're coaches do a great job of preparing them.

"It's a good test. We played them in the playoffs last year. It probably wasn't our best game. They gave us a lot of challenges and we're going to have to deal with them as best as we possibly can. It's a tough team to face."

SERIES HISTORY: 8th regular-season meeting. Patriots lead series, 6-1. New England has dominated this modern series, although the victories have not always come easily, including last January's postseason battle. Houston's defense gave Tom Brady fits, forcing two interceptions, in the New England 34-16 victory that was closer than the score would indicate. That came after the Patriots won in surprisingly lopsided fashion last September, when rookie Jacoby Brissett made his first NFL start and took advantage of two short fields thanks to Houston fumbles on kickoffs, leading to 14 points in a 27-0 victory. The only Texans victory in the series came in the 2009 season finale, 34-27 game.

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CB Malcolm Butler started 33 consecutive regular season games -- including every one in the last two seasons -- before serving in a reserve role in last Sunday's matchup with the Saints in New Orleans. New England opened the game with CB Eric Rowe starting opposite high-priced free agent addition Stephon Gilmore in the back end. Butler came on to play 45 snaps against the Saints, at least in part due to Rowe leaving in the first half with a groin injury.

Still, Butler serving as a reserve rather than his customary role as a starter who has earned matchup duties against the likes of Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham in recent years was very much worth noting. That's especially true given the fact that Butler was a restricted free agent this offseason who took a visit with the Saints and many thought would end up in New Orleans via trade after New England invested $65 million in Gilmore.

That trade never came to fruition, but Butler's role and future with the Patriots clearly remain in doubt.

"We're into a new season, so I don't think anybody's performance this season is really where it needs to be or where it will be," coach Bill Belichick said when asked about his former Pro Bowler cornerback's level of consistency early this season. "We all need to do a better job -- players, coaches -- all of us across the board. Hopefully, we'll all continue to get better during the course of the year. That's why we practice, and meet, and come in here and work hard, so hopefully we'll all be able to improve."

Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia did his best to deflect a question about Butler's role before a follow-up query wondered how a guy who's been a 97-98-percent play time player suddenly found himself in a reserve role.

"I think Coach Belichick obviously answered a lot of those questions too, " Patricia said. "In terms of asking me as far as for us defensively, you know it's all about this year. I think what things have gone down in the past doesn't really matter to us. We're trying to get better for this year, and the guys that are out there, or where we think they need to be right now to help us win that particular week."

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QB Tom Brady earned AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors for a record 28th time with his impressive performance in the Week 2 win in New Orleans. Brady led New England to the 36-20 victory over the Saints completing 30 of 39 passes for 447 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. The three touchdowns came in the first quarter, the first time he accomplished that feat in his historic career.

Brady previously had been tied with Peyton Manning for the most Player of the Week Awards with 27.

Brady earned the award the same day his new book -- The TB12 Method: How to Achieve a Lifetime of Sustained Peak Performance -- was released. Thought the book is No. 1 on Amazon, Brady's coach didn't help with the sales.

"We see Tom every day. I don't really feel like I need to read a book," Bill Belichick said.

Brady seemed stunned to find out Belichick hadn't bought one, though.

"Maybe I'll give it to him for Christmas or something," Brady responded.

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Coach Bill Belichick seemed to be a bit defensive when asked about Texans coach Bill O'Brien, his former offensive coordinator who his Patriots face this Sunday in Foxborough.

O'Brien has put forth three winning seasons to open his Texans career, including two division titles and a playoff win last January. But O'Brien has struggled to bring consistency to the quarterback position and his offense currently ranks 31st in the NFL having already switched from opening-day starter Tom Savage to raw rookie Deshaun Watson at quarterback.

"He's a very good fundamental coach," Belichick said. "He does an excellent job of teaching the quarterbacks fundamentals. He's an excellent play caller and game planner, game-plan coach, does an excellent job of attacking weaknesses, but he also brings a physicality and a toughness element to the offense and the team that I think is important.

"I mean, look, I would say he took over a 2-14 team, a team that wasn't very good that had a lot of problems. I think he's done a pretty good job in that organization with what he's had to work with, and I think he's one of the best coaches in the league. So, that's my opinion."

Another question about what Belichick liked about O'Brien as his coordinator in New England, where he held various roles from 2007-11, really got the Patriots boss rolling defending his former assistant.

"I think he's a great coach," Belichick said. "He does a great job with his players. He does a great job managing the staff. He's brought a winning team to Houston, which, I imagine, is what people want. They're not interested in putting points and stats up on the board. It's about finding a way to coach your team to win, and that's what he did a great job of for us.

"It wasn't about stats and things like that. It was about making the right plays, doing the right things necessary based on game situations and what the circumstances were in any particular week or game or end of the game situation that required doing the right thing to win the game. That's what we're here for. If it's all about stats, then that's probably not the conversation that he wants to be in or I would want to be in. If it's about winning, then that's a whole other conversation, which is what I think it should be about. But, I know it isn't for everybody."

NOTES: DB Robert Nelson joined the Patriots practice squad. The 5-9, 175-pounder entered the NFL as a rookie free agent out of Arizona State in 2014. He's spent time with the Browns, Cardinals and, most recently, the Texans. He played in 11 games with no starts last season in Houston, who held joint practices against the Patriots this summer and New England's opponent this week. ... OL Jason King signed with the New England practice squad. The 6-4, 310-pound rookie free agent out of Purdue spent the summer and the preseason with the Patriots. ... CB Jomal Wiltz was released from the Patriots practice squad Sept. 20. ... TE Rob Gronkowski (groin) did not practice despite the fact that he was on the field during the media viewing window of practice, taking part in stretching and position drills. Gronkowski injured the groin in the second half of Sunday's win in New Orleans and did not finish the game. ... RB Rex Burkhead (ribs) did not participate in practice on Wednesday due to the injury he suffered in the first half last Sunday in New Orleans. ... T Marcus Cannon (ankle/concussion) did not practice. The right tackle had been dealing with the ankle issue and now has the concussion despite playing all 76 offensive snaps on Sunday in New Orleans. ... WR Danny Amendola (concussion/knee) returned to practice on a limited basis after missing workouts all last week and Sunday's game in New Orleans. ... WR Phillip Dorsett (knee) practiced on a limited basis after suffering the injury late in Sunday's win over the Saints. ... CB Stephon Gilmore (groin) was limited in practice after playing all 65 defensive snaps last Sunday. ... LB Dont'a Hightower (knee) returned to practice on a limited basis after missing last week's workouts and Sunday's game in New Orleans because of the injury suffered in Week 1. ... WR Chris Hogan (knee) practice on a limited basis. ... LB Elandon Roberts (thumb) was limited in practice on Wednesday. ... CB Eric Rowe (groin) was limited in practice after leaving Sunday's win in the third quarter with the injury. ... WR Matthew Slater (hamstring) returned to practice on a limited basis after missing workouts last week and sitting out the first two games to the injury that dates to the first few days of training camp. ... DT Vincent Valentine (knee) returned to practice on a limited basis after missing the first two weeks of the season to the injury.

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