Houston Texans

Patriots follow the usual course and take an opponent to school

Patriots follow the usual course and take an opponent to school

FOXBORO -- It is possible for the Patriots to have played well and for the Texans to be worse than we thought? Those two things can coexist. It doesn't have to be one or the other.

That's the way it looked as it played out live. And that's the way it looked upon re-watching Monday.

The Texans offense was sloppy. They couldn't protect. They couldn't generate much through the air with anyone not named DeAndre Hopkins. And the Deshaun Watson regression, which was inevitable given his other-worldly fraction of a season in 2017, is underway.

Credit the Patriots, though, for starting fast defensively -- particularly up front. The infusion of talent along the defensive line has already produced results. Offensively, Tom Brady was very sharp after an interminable offseason that included him taking a very different springtime approach. For the most part -- even at his age, and with less time spent with the team leading up to the season -- he was the guy New England has come to know and expect.

In our first report card of 2018, we'll start with that 41-year-old.

QUARTERBACK: B+


Was it perfect? Nope. Brady's first throw of the game should've been a touchdown that sailed over Rex Burkhead's head. And he put together an ugly drive midway through the second quarter when he threw behind Chris Hogan incomplete, threw beyond the reach of James White incomplete, and threw into triple coverage to Hogan deep. He also was late and missed an out-route to James White. But otherwise, there were more shake-your-head pinpoint throws than slap-your-forehead inaccurate ones. His touchdown to Rob Gronkowski was exactly where it needed to be, and his throws to the big tight end down the seam were equally sharp. His throw to White at the end of the third quarter, while absorbing a hit, was vintage. And a near-dagger in the fourth quarter -- his scramble-drill pass to James Develin with Develin covered -- showed he still has plenty of mobility and arm strength to find openings in tight windows.

RUNNING BACK: C


The Patriots went heavy early and often -- no surprise given their depth at receiver -- and relied on this group to do a great deal. They worked out of their "pony" set with two pass-catching backs. They worked out of the I and offset I-formations with James Develin, whose 35 snaps played would've been his second-highest number all of last season. But the Texans and their talented front were ready. The Patriots averaged just under four yards per carry (122 yards on 31 attempts) and had trouble breaking any big ones (long of 12 yards). Jeremy Hill being out for the season could end up being significant as he looked like the strongest runner on the day (four attempts for 25 yards and one catch for six). James White was a go-to option in the passing game (four catches on eight targets for 38 yards and an easy score), while Rex Burkhead did surprisingly little through the air (three targets, one catch). He also had a drop and a fumble. An issue here? Very few yards after contact. They averaged 2.22 yards after contact, per Pro Football Focus, which may improve against a lighter front. But it also may indicate they need another body to wear down defenses.

RECEIVER: B


The bright spot here was Phillip Dorsett and the trust he's continued to develop with Brady. To hear Brady say after the game that Dorsett handled option routes well, that should go a long way. As should Dorsett catching all seven targets sent his way (including one that was probably actually intended for Hogan). Hard to give Dorsett a ton of credit on the two-minute drill when the Texans were inexplicably giving him the sideline -- Dorsett was as surprised as anyone that happened, he told me after the game -- but he executed and flashed dependable hands. Hogan couldn't seem to create much separation other than on one 11-yard comeback, though he was interfered with and drew a penalty down the seam in the third quarter. Cordarrelle Patterson was up and down on his end-around hand-offs (one went for 10, one went for zero, one went for three). He is what he is -- not a route-runner or a dependable part of the offense. Riley McCarron's muffed punt won't hurt this group's grade and will instead factor into the complicated mess on special teams.

TIGHT END: B+


Develin factors in here and helps give this grade -- mostly based off of Gronkowski's work -- a bit of a bump. Asked to be on the field more than usual, Develin was solid in the run game. He'd love to have the final offensive play of the game -- a Burkhead run blown up by Kareem Jackson -- back, but he helped extend that drive in the first place with a nice first-down catch on a Brady scramble drill. He also had a key block on Burkhead's 12-yard run late in the third quarter that was perfectly executed. Gronkowski, other than his lost fumble, was very good. Back shoulder touchdown, acrobatic seam grab through double-coverage . . . standard absurdity from him. Dwayne Allen was a non-factor in the passing game -- no surprise there -- but wasn't all that consistent in the run game, which is his bread and butter. He did well to block Jadeveon Clowney one-on-one on Burkhead's long run, but for having played 23 snaps he was otherwise very quiet.

OFFENSIVE LINE: B


Tough group to grade this week. When you're able to keep Clowney, J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus quiet for the better part of three quarters, you deserve something in the A-range for that effort. But things broke down late in the game as Brady was sacked twice and hit three more times late in the third and into the fourth quarter. Watt (one sack, two hits, one hurry) heated up while working on the combination of Marcus Cannon (being platooned as he gets accustomed to regular-season conditioning) and LaAdrian Waddle. He got Waddle for one sack. Then David Andrews and Shaq Mason didn't communicate well enough to stop a D.J. Reader sack in the fourth quarter. Mason was impressive as a puller -- he was one of the key blocks on Burkhead's 12-yarder -- but he allowed a hit by Reader late in the third. Trent Brown almost allowed one Burkhead run to be blown up by Watt -- Burkhead bounced off the hit to salvage three yards -- but was otherwise very good in pass protection. He was a huge reason for why Clowney had just one hurry all day, almost one year after coming to Gillette Stadium and dominating stretches of that game. They have a good one in Brown. He passed his first test.

SPECIAL TEAMS: C-


Ryan Allen was among the few bright spots for this group Sunday. On six punts, only two were returned for a total of 18 yards, and two were plopped down inside the 10. He saved his best for last, dropping a wedge shot that landed at the one and was downed by Jonathan Jones. Stephen Gostkowski was also solid, making all three of his extra-point attempts, a 39-yard field goal and a 35-yarder. How the Patriots kick coverage unit handled Gostkowski's kickoffs, though, was a different story. Tyler Ervin returned five for 156 yards (31.2 average), and Ervin might've actually been able to rip off more yardage had he seen some of the holes the Patriots opened for him. Joe Judge's unit was also flagged for an illegal formation penalty at the end of the first half. Riley McCarron's muffed punt had the opportunity to swing the entire complexion of the game. He faced the music afterward, answering questions from reporters about how that happened, but one would think the Patriots have to go in a different direction in that role for Week 2. The only reason it might be up for any type of debate is they just don't have anyone else to do it. Patrick Chung has returned three punts in his career. Cordarrelle Patterson has returned one.

DEFENSIVE LINE: A-


What a difference an offseason makes. Remember when the Patriots had to rely upon Eric Lee, James Harrison and Ricky Jean Francois for 98 combined snaps in the Super Bowl? Feels like so long ago. Against the Texans, the Patriots didn't even need to dress 2017 third-rounder Derek Rivers and they still got an impressive pass-rush against a QB who's dangerous on the move. They had seven different linemen generate pressure. Trey Flowers was dominant for stretches (in on two sacks, three hits, four hurries), Deatrich Wise was in on a pair of sacks of his own, Lawrence Guy made his presence felt with a hit that led to Stephon Gilmore's pick, Adrian Clayborn buzzed the tower three different times to help force the ball out quickly, and Keionta Davis recorded a hit in his first game as a pro. There was a brutal stretch in the third quarter where Adam Butler and/or Danny Shelton couldn't hold their ground properly in the run game on multiple snaps, helping lead to a sustained drive powered by runs that finished with an eventual Alfred Blue touchdown. The run defense allowed 4.9 yards per carry on the day, which will require some cleaning up -- especially since this was one of the worst offensive lines the Patriots will see in 2018. But for the most part, this was a clean and impressive performance from a vastly improved group.

LINEBACKER: B


The first play of the game was a gift. But give Dont'a Hightower credit for blowing up Seantrel Henderson and being in the right place at the right time to help set up the offense for its first scoring drive of the year. Hightower had a pressure later in the first quarter that helped force an errant throw. You expect those types of things from him. Ja'Whaun Bentley, though, was the more surprising force. He led all front-seven players with 51 snaps, had a tackle for a loss, a quarterback hit and seven tackles total. He was on the field in all situations -- including on kick return and on the punt team -- and looks like much more of an all-around talent than he was given credit for coming out of Purdue. Remember, NFL teams used him almost strictly at the line of scrimmage at the Senior Bowl because they assumed he wasn't athletic enough to play off the line in today's game. Think they'd like to have that assessment back? The 'backers, Bentley included, weren't perfect in coverage -- Elandon Roberts was beaten on a mismatch with receiver Bruce Ellington in the third quarter -- and their run fits were shoddy at times. Roberts and Van Noy looked a little out of sorts at points in the third; Van Noy and Patrick Chung couldn't seem to figure out their goal-line fits on a hurry-up snap that resulted in Blue's score. Van Noy did have a key tackle for a loss to start the second half, which eventually helped force a punt, meaning the linebackers were in on two key plays to start each half. Tone-setters, you could say. 

SECONDARY: B+


If not for a couple of Gilmore penalties in the game's final moments, and a defenseless receiver penalty called on Duron Harmon, this might've been in the "A-" range. Now is that mostly because Watson couldn't threaten the Patriots deep down the field and truly challenge Patriots defensive backs? Partly. But they were challenged by defensive play-caller Brian Flores to play a great deal of man coverage against a mobile quarterback -- never an easy task -- and answered the bell. Gilmore was tight to Hopkins for much of the afternoon between the 20s, and he used his help well in the red zone to take Hopkins away. His pick deep down the field (on an inexplicable throw by Watson) was impressive out of Cover-3, and he broke up another pass intended for Hopkins that was in the receiver's grasp for a moment before Gilmore punched it loose. He wanted Hopkins, he got him, and he turned in a good day until the very end. Jonathan Jones broke up a pair of passes and looked good in his first 37 snaps since ending last year injured. Eric Rowe was also solid despite colliding with Bentley at the goal line to give up a late score. Houston just didn't have anyone who could challenge him. Patrick Chung was beaten by Jordan Thomas for 27 yards at one point, but he held Ryan Griffin catchless on three targets. Devin McCourty was also solid, chasing down a Hopkins end-around when Hopkins bailed, reversed field, and got nowhere. Impressive hustle from one of the most dependable players on one of the most dependable groups on the roster. 

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Bentley sees more time than any other Patriots front-seven player

Bentley sees more time than any other Patriots front-seven player

FOXBORO - The Patriots leader in playing time at linebacker on Sunday? Wasn't Dont'a Hightower. Wasn't Kyle Van Noy. Wasn't Elandon Roberts. 

It was fifth-round rookie Ja'Whaun Bentley out of Purdue. One draft weekend, he was a self-proclaimed thumper. He was listed at 260 pounds. He looked like a first and second-down player. One linebacker-needy NFL team had Bentley entirely off its board because Bentley wasn't perceived as athletic enough to contribute to their scheme. 

Then he goes out and leads all front-seven players in snaps in the Patriots season-opener. 

Bill Belichick said in a conference call on Monday that Bentley's maturity level has helped him acclimate quickly to the pro game. 

"Absolutely . . . I think that's the player," he said. "You can go back to DeMatha High School and see that. Purdue. Started as a freshman at Purdue. Kid's been productive at almost every program he's been almost as soon as he's been in the program. I mean, I don't see it as a big shock."

Bentley has flashed a surprising ability to play the pass going all the way back to OTAs. That continued into training camp and preseason play. It looked a little awkward at times, but he was consistently around the ball, and even if he allowed a catch, he wasn't too far behind to make a tackle. 

Hovering in the middle of the field, crashing down against the run, and finishing off plays (seven tackles, one for a loss), Bentley saw twice as much time as Roberts and worked well in tandem with Hightower when it came to the defensive communication side of things. 

As impressive as Bentley was this summer, I wondered if he might not dress for the season opener. He wasn't a first-team special-teamer in the preseason. (He did play on kick-return and punt against the Texans.) And I thought there was a chance he was still really only a two-down player, almost in the mold of David Harris had last season: Important in short-yardage and goal-line situations, but a niche guy. 

I didn't trust what I'd seen from Bentley in the passing game before the season, and I should have. I couldn't have been more wrong.

Niche guy? He's only one week into his pro career, but it looks like he's carved out a niche all right . . . as an every-down linebacker.

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Patriots-Texans: The Complete Review

Patriots-Texans: The Complete Review

At least we didn’t have to wait to see how much “the peripherals” mattered when it came to determining what kind of offseason hangover remained. Just 190 seconds into the 2018 season, Tom Brady threw a 21-yard laser to Rob Gronkowski who plucked the pass, eluded two defenders and got in over the pylon to make it 7-0. At that point and by game’s end it was abundantly clear that the two best players on the field were the two guys who went their own way all spring and most of the summer. So call it refutation. Welcome refutation. The Texans are who they’ve always been and not what I thought they were. And the Patriots are -- most likely -- the same as they ever were. Especially for the 60 minutes of football they play each week.

WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAD THE BALL

If a team can’t figure out a way to devote one player at all times to dealing with Rob Gronkowski, then it deserves what it gets. And Houston got Gronked but good as Brady threw to him eight times and found him seven for 123 yards and that game-opening touchdown. Time and again down the seam the Texans gave Gronk too much room. Or maybe they just thought that Brady wouldn’t throw it to him when they had him semi-covered. Gronk thought the same. Of his diving catch late in the first half, Gronk said, “I was running up the seam I had two guys on me and when I saw the ball in the air I literally thought first thing, “What is Tom [Brady] thinking?” When that ball was in the air I had a guy grabbing me and I was just like, “I’ve just got to go for it.” I can’t let them make a play on it, so just went up for it, made the catch. I did make the catch. I don’t know how. When I went to the ground I had it stable in my hand, so it was definitely a catch, but Tom went up to the line really quick just to make sure.” Brady finished 26 for 39 for 277 with three TDs and a pick off a tipped pass. He got great protection for about 70 percent of the game before things got hairy later on. Still, the Patriots turned away the Texans athletic front-seven in impressive fashion and Brady did a good job getting more from Phillip Dorsett (7 targets, 7 catches, 66 yards) than anyone really has. Tough blow losing Jeremy Hill, whose running style fit perfectly. Rex Burkhead did the heavy lifting (18 carries for 64 yards) and James Develin wound up with four catches for 22 yards, the final one being an important 10-yard pickup. The Patriots worked to get Cordarelle Patterson some touches in space. He didn’t make much happen but there was enough there to keep working that angle.

WHEN THE TEXANS HAD THE BALL

The Patriots defense held the Texans to 2 for 11 on third down. The rush and coverage were synced up nicely in the first half especially when they held Houston to 141 yards of offense and harassed Watson into a 5 for 13 start with a pick. Watson was bothered in the pocket and the Patriots got to him for three sacks and forced several inaccurate throws on the move. A lot of credit goes to pass rush discipline on the edges and what appeared to be a more aggressive effort to disrupt Watson as opposed to living in fear of the scramble. Even though the last 10 minutes weren’t great, the secondary did a very good job most of the game disrupting receivers as the ball arrived. DeAndre Hopkins was targeted 11 times, caught eight and finished with 78 yards receiving, less than what you’d expect from him with eight catches. Ja’Whaun Bentley, Deatrich Wise, Lawrence Guy, Dont’a Hightower, Trey Flowers, Kyle Van Noy and Adrian Clayborn were a big part of the success up front.

THE KICKING GAME

The Patriots put Riley McCarron back to field punts. He fair caught one at the Patriots 6. Not ideal. He muffed another one in the fourth to set up a Texans touchdown that closed the lead to seven. Even less ideal. Punter Ryan Allen bailed the Pats out with a terrific punt late that was downed at the Texans 1 by Jonathan Jones. Allen had a very good day. The Patriots kick coverage wasn’t terrific. Tyler Ervin averaged 31.2 yards on his returns. Stephen Gostkowski was good from 35 and 39.

PATRIOTS MEDICAL REPORT

Jeremy Hill suffered a knee injury. Worst case, it’s an ACL. Best case it’s an MCL.

TEXANS MEDICAL REPORT

Kevin Johnson and Seantrel Henderson were forced from the game for the Texans.

TEXANS HAD TO STOP...

James White. White is the Patriots best threat when it comes to creating short-area separation in the passing game. Without potent threats on the perimeter and attention being paid to Gronk, White should get some 1-on-1s he can feast on.

AND WHAT HAPPENED...

I figured the Texans would devote two guys to erasing Gronk and that would leave a lot on White to make people miss in open space. The Texans were awful on Gronk. White hurt them as well with four catches for 38 yards and a 12-yard touchdown.

PATRIOTS HAD TO STOP...

Deshaun Watson. The pass rush just can’t get overly rambunctious and leave creases for Watson to wander into and buy time to set his feet and survey. As improved as the New England defense is, they still don’t have great coverage at the linebacker level and Watson could feast on those restarts.

AND WHAT HAPPENED...

A combination of patience, discipline and aggressiveness. That’s how Deatrich Wise described the Patriots approach to dealing with the Texans quarterback. Watson ran eight times for 40 yards and went 17 for 34 for 16 yards with a TD pass and a pick.

THAT SUMS IT UP PATRIOTS STYLE

“Guys that are big, fast, athletic, can throw the ball all over the field, there's only a couple of them in the league and so to have them on your team would be unusual. You just do the best you can on that and try to give the defense the best look as you can at what they do. Sometimes that might be putting a receiver or somebody like that at quarterback … if you've got guys that are unique players that have special skills then you can't replicate them. Neither can anybody else except for the team that has that guy. You just try to do the best you can and take what you have and try to simulate it.” – Bill Belichick on the difficulty of preparing for Deshaun Watson.  

A-plus job of preparing for Watson this week. Maybe he isn’t where he will be later in the season as he comes back from that ACL but the Patriots did a very good job hemming him in and forcing less than accurate throws.

THAT SUMS IT UP TEXANS STYLE

 “People talk about the later parts of his career. I don’t really see where his – you know, I don’t know when his career’s going to be over because he’s playing at a – I mean, he was the MVP last year, you know what I mean? So, like when is his – I don’t even know what the definition of latter part of this guy’s career would be. He’s the MVP of the league last year.” – Texans coach Bill O’Brien, flummoxed by a question about Tom Brady in the autumn of his career.  

One of the biggest plays in the game was Brady finding James Develin for 10 yards on a second-and-8 play after the two-minute warning. Brady bought time, wandered around, scrambled and then threw a dart on the run to Develin for a first down that forced the Texans to burn all their timeouts.

THE CREW AND THE LINE

Tony Corrente and the boys were the crew in town for this one. I always confuse Pete Morelli and Tony Corrente so this isn’t as bad as I initially thought. Pete Morelli could screw up a walk to the mailbox. The Patriots were favored by 6.5 and the total was 50.

Patriots cover and this is an under. Meanwhile, Tony’s crew … a gentleman’s C. They should have done a booth review on Gronk’s catch late in the first half. They appeared to severely bungle one of the two holds on Stephon Gilmore in the fourth quarter … there were some egregious offensive holds going on that appeared to draw flags but got lost in the flood. Also, the helmet clash that drove Texans corner Kevin Johnson from the game was an instance where both players lowered and hit with the crown and neither could be described as “bracing.” I’m sure there were other mistakes. The penalties were even, six each.