Patriots

Texans may be the ones to pressure Patriots in AFC

Texans may be the ones to pressure Patriots in AFC

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, West Virginia -- Joe Thuney was covered in sweat and little bits of grass as he raised his eyebrows and shook his head. The topic of conversation had shifted to JJ Watt.

"Obviously he's a really talented player and he has a very high motor," Thuney said after spending a chunk of Tuesday morning trying to stop one of the generation's best defensive players in Tuesday's joint practice with the Texans.

"He never stops. He's just a great combination of size and speed. You just gotta hone in on your technique and play through the whistle to block him. It's a great challenge."

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Even after season-ending back surgery last year, even in a training camp practice where hitting quarterbacks was off limits, Watt looked strong in the first of two joint workouts with the Patriots at the Greenbrier, adding a one-on-one matchup nightmare to a defensive front that gave the Patriots fits in last year's Divisional Round game at Gillette Stadium. That night Tom Brady was sacked twice, hit eight times and hurried on 12 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, leading to a 47.4 percent completion percentage.

Though Brady wasn't hit at the Greenbrier resort -- life is good in a red non-contact jersey -- Tuesday's workout was more of the same for Texans pass-rushers and Patriots offensive linemen.

Yes, the Patriots were without Nate Solder, arguably their best pass-blocker. But the Texans were without Jadeveon Clowney, and they still found ways to have success.

Whitney Mercilus beat up on the combination of LaAdrian Waddle and Cameron Fleming, who have been filling in for Solder at left tackle as Solder makes his way back from an injury. Watt had some good battles with both Marcus Cannon and Joe Thuney, but he won more than his share. He also got by Waddle and Shaq Mason for pressures.

On one snap near the end of practice -- about the time Brady started to give it to his teammates as the frustration built -- Watt drove Thuney into the backfield, and as Brady tried to elude the pressure, he and Thuney got their legs tangled. For the first time in 11-on-11 drills in this year's camp, Brady ended up on the ground.

"You can report on whatever you want to report on," Watt said when asked about getting Brady down without touching him. "I'm not here to talk about any of that."

There were occasions, though, when it looked as though Watt wanted to let everyone know he could have hit Brady if he only would have been allowed.

Whenever Watt made his way around the edge and ran by Brady, he kept his hand in the air as he jogged toward the Texans sideline. Maybe it was his way of working on keeping his hands high around the edge to go for the football; strip sacks, like all sacks, are not permitted in camp practices. But it seemed to be more a case of Watt saying something to the effect of, "There's another."

The Patriots have done well to neutralize Watt in the past, but it's hard to imagine he wouldn't have helped last year's front that caused Brady problems.

"If you take the defensive MVP and put him anywhere," said Texans defensive tackle DJ Reader, "it makes a difference, right?"

The Patriots won't say it, and they don't want you to either, but odds are they'll be the ones coming out of the AFC. Yet with Watt back in the mix, the Texans pass-rush may be what makes them the ultimate thorn in the side of the reigning champs.

Teams like the Raiders and Steelers look much more formidable offensively, obviously, but if the equation to beat the Patriots is to make life miserable for Brady, who's built better than Bill O'Brien's club to do just that?

Even with Watt and some semblance of competent quarterback play, the Texans will be a longshot to knock off the Patriots in January. But they may have as good a shot as anyone in the conference, which makes their West Virginian rendezvous this week all the more intriguing to watch.

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Speed to burn: Cooks, Brady team up to form most productive deep-ball combo

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Speed to burn: Cooks, Brady team up to form most productive deep-ball combo

The first came in the second quarter, when Brandin Cooks turned on afterburners to beat a Raiders double team and glide underneath a Tom Brady heave for 52 yards. The second came in the third quarter, on the third play from scrimmage of the second half, when Cooks faked an out-route, jetted past rookie corner Obi Melifonwu, and sped into the end zone to make the score 24-0. 

Both deep completions in New England's 33-8 win over Oakland just added to cumulative effect that Cooks has had on the Patriots offense since arriving before the season to become their top deep threat. 

Paired with Brady, Cooks has actually become the most productive deep threat in the NFL. 

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According to Pro Football Focus, Cooks leads all receivers with 431 yards on deep passes (throws that travel 20 yards or more down the field). In second place is Houston's DeAndre Hopkins with 313 yards. 

And Brady, who has long been more effective in the short-to-intermediate range than he has been deep, is now among the league leaders in creating explosive plays from the quarterback position. The Patriots are third in the NFL with 41 pass plays of 20 yards or more, and they are tied for second with nine plays of 40 yards or more. 

"You're always trying to work on that," Brady told WEEI's Kirk and Callahan Show of his team's deep passing game. "It's not one particular year [you work on it]. I think that's been a concerted effort by our entire offense, trying to make more explosive plays in the pass game. 

"Sometimes your offense is built differently. We actually have some guys now that can really get down the field so that becomes more of a point of emphasis. The way Brandin runs, the way that Chris Hogan runs, the way that Phillip Dorsett runs, they're very fast. You need to be able to take advantage of their skill set . . . 

"When we had David Patten we were throwing it deep. I mean, but David Patten didn't run a lot of short routes. I would say Brandin Cooks, in general, he doesn't run a lot of short routes. Everyone has a different role. If we can get by you, I think that's a good place to throw the ball. if we can't, we gotta figure out ways to throw it underneath and different weeks are going to call for different things based on the strengths of the defenses we're playing, too."

A week before beating the Raiders, against the Broncos and their talented corners, the Patriots had less luck pushing the ball down the field -- though they tried to hit Cooks deep multiple times. In Mexico City, Cooks matched up with a weaker secondary, and he wasn't at all slowed by the altitude, catching six passes in all for 149 yards and a score. 

Per PFF, Cooks has seen almost one third of his targets (30 percent) come on deep passes, which is the ninth-highest rate in the league. He's caught all 11 of his catchable deep passes, three of them accounting for scores.

"Obviously when you're throwing the ball 50-60 yards down the field," Brady said, "your chances of completion go down, but if you hit it, it ends up being a very explosive plays and you can change a lot of field position and get a defense really on their heels if they have to defend every blade of grass on the field." 

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Belichick remembers Glenn: 'A good person with good intentions'

Belichick remembers Glenn: 'A good person with good intentions'

Terry Glenn, the Patriots' top draft pick in 1996, died early Monday morning in a one-car accident in Irving, Texas. He was 43. 

Bill Belichick coached Glenn as an assistant with the Patriots during Glenn's rookie season. He was later Glenn's head coach in 2000 and 2001. Belichick traded Glenn to the Packers before the 2002 season after a tumultuous run in New England that involved legal trouble, injuries and clashes with the coaching staff.

During a conference call with reporters soon after the news of Glenn's death was published, Belichick remembered Glenn for his natural physical ability and "a good heart."

"I was pretty close with Terry," Belichick said, "and his rookie season was my first year here in '96, and so I had a lot of interaction with him and other people that were involved in his life and his upbringing separate from the Patriots. Terry's a very smart individual. Had a lot of, obviously, a lot of physical skill and talent. Could do a lot of things on the football field very naturally. And I think he was deep down inside a good person with good intentions and, you know, a good heart. Obviously it's very unfortunate. Very unfortunate passing. I mean, it's a sad day. Sad news."

According to reports, Glenn was with his fiancee at the time of the accident. She's being treated at a local hospital for unspecified injuries.