Patriots

Patriots

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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