Five things to watch during Patriots-Texans: Who's in, who's out?
After a pair of joint practices against the Texans in West Virginia, the Patriots will take on the Texans tonight in Houston. Here are a few of the things we'll be keeping an eye on . . .
Tom Brady didn't play against the Jaguars. Neither did Rob Gronkowski. Brandin Cooks never set foot on the field. Same went for Julian Edelman, Malcolm Butler, Stephon Gilmore, Devin McCourty or a host of others. Will those players who sat out the preseason opener get some time at NRG Stadium? Though it may seem unnecessary -- especially after two relatively intense days of practice against the Texans at the Greenbrier -- perhaps the Patriots coaching staff would like to get its top-end players some work together in a game situation. There are just a few opportunities left for that before Week 1 of the regular season as the fourth preseason game is typically when reserves get most of, if not all, the playing time. Players like Nate Solder, Matthew Slater, Shea McClellin, Mike Gillislee, Derek Rivers, LaAdrian Waddle, Brandon King, Shea McClellin and Dont'a Hightower (PUP) are not expected to play based on the practice time they've missed of late.
CAN GAROPPOLO AVOID HARM?
Jimmy Garoppolo had a few close calls last week when he was hit during a pass attempt and sacked on consecutive drives to start the game against the Jaguars. He also rolled out to his right -- a play almost identical to the one where he injured his shoulder in Week 2 of last season -- and fell on his throwing shoulder but ended up OK. The Texans defensive front, if its starters play, may not be as forgiving. JJ Watt and Whitney Mercilus both had strong days of practice against the Patriots in West Virginia, but they weren't allowed to hit quarterbacks. Saturday will be different. Can Garoppolo avoid harm's way? And can he show he understands how to play the game in such a way that he keeps himself upright to see another play. Bill Belichick said last season that his team's quarterbacks know how to balance protecting themselves versus trying to make a play.
"We talk about it," he said at the time. "I don’t think there’s any lack of understanding from the quarterbacks I’ve coached here on those types of things. It goes for a lot of other positions, too. I wouldn’t just limit it to that position, but yeah, we understand that. We talk about it. I don’t think there’s any – I mean we all know I think kind of what the parameters are. Each situation is different and, you know, a lot of split-second decisions but in terms of general guidelines and so forth, yeah, we’ve absolutely talked about that. I don’t think there’s any question about what our feelings are on that and what the quarterback’s feelings are on it."
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
Jacoby Brissett didn't see much in the way of snaps at the Greenbrier, but he could see a bunch against the Texans. What I'll be watching won't necessarily be if he's missing throws. That's bound to happen in certain circumstances. In addition to how he runs the huddle and if he can establish any type of rhythm, I'd like to see HOW he misses throws when he does. For much of the spring and summer, the ball has seemed to come out a little hot. He has an adjustment to make in that regard. The second-year passer said last week he has to get back to his mechanics.
FLEMING'S TIME TO SHINE?
Cam Fleming actually got the last laugh on Mercilus toward the end of Wednesday's joint practice. During a hurry-up drill, he put Mercilus on the ground, helping to buy time for Tom Brady as he found James White for a touchdown. Otherwise, though? Fleming had his share of difficulty with Mercilus. Can he show any marked improvement against one of the better pass-rushers in the conference? With Nate Solder, LaAdrian Waddle and Tony Garcia down injured, Fleming could have the left-tackle job to himself for the first half or more.
The Patriots kept Rex Burkhead out of last week's game, and this could be his first chance to play on television for those intrigued by his fit in New England. He's big enough to take carries at the goal line. He's quick enough to catch footballs out of the backfield and elude tacklers. We've seen him do both this summer. With Mike Gillislee missing time with an injury, Burkhead's role has seemingly picked up in practices. His abilities as a receiver and a 210-pound between-the-tackles back make him perhaps the most versatile back on the roster.