Thursday Night Football
Houston @ New England
Vegas Projected Score: Texans 20.75, Patriots 19.75
Jimmy Garoppolo's shoulder injury is expected to force New England to turn to third-round pick Jacoby Brissett, who completed just 59.9% of his career throws with an underwhelming 6.89 YPA at N.C. State before turning in a solid preseason. Although they were admittedly salting clock after jumping out to a 24-3 lead, the Patriots amassed 24 called runs compared to only 12 passes after Brissett took over in last week's win over the Dolphins, even as Miami narrowed the deficit with three second-half touchdowns. Brissett's pass attempts were all short, finishing with a 1.1-yard Average Depth of Target. Since Houston's Week 9 bye last year, these are the weekly quarterback finishes allowed by the Texans beginning with most recent: QB31, QB28, QB31, QB26, QB30, QB13, QB7, QB19, QB12, QB24. Brissett would be a poor two-quarterback-league bet. ... A run-heavy approach seems certain against the Texans, who lost ILB Brian Cushing to a torn MCL in Week 1 and have allowed 34-179-1 (5.26 YPC) rushing to Bears and Chiefs RBs. LeGarrette Blount posted carry totals of 22 and 29 in Weeks 1-2, out-snapping passing-game specialist James White 61% to 34% and out-touching him 51 to 12. At least until Tom Brady returns, Blount is shaping up as a far more consistent part of New England's offense this year. Including playoffs, Blount has scored 26 touchdowns in 40 career games as a Patriot, which would extrapolate to 10.4 TDs in a 16-game sample. I like Blount's chances of hitting pay dirt on Thursday night. He should be viewed as a fringe RB1 in non-PPR leagues and an RB2 in PPR.
Brissett's target distribution after he replaced Garoppolo last week: Julian Edelman and Martellus Bennett 3; Chris Hogan 2; James White 1. ... Some beat reporters believe Rob Gronkowski (hamstring) will make his 2016 debut on Thursday night. Combined with Brissett's expected under-center presence, Gronk's return will throw a major wrench into New England's target distribution and render the entire pass-catcher corps mere fantasy dart throws. You're starting Gronk if you have him, of course. The only other Patriots passing-game member I might feel comfortable using is Edelman, who runs low-difficulty patterns Brissett can hit and may even see some snaps at quarterback or in the Wildcat, which would supplement Edelman's box score. Hogan has yet to top 60 yards as a Patriot. Bennett is coming off a huge Week 2 (5-114-1), but someone is going to have to help pass-protection liability RT Marcus Cannon block J.J. Watt. Rookie WR Malcolm Mitchell's target counts through two games are 5 and 2.
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The Patriots showed some pass-defense vulnerability in their first two games, yielding the QB12 finish to Carson Palmer in Week 1 and the QB7 finish to Ryan Tannehill last week. Tannehill posted most of his production in pass-heavy trail mode, but New England had no answers for Jarvis Landry (10-137) and DeVante Parker (8-106) in the final two quarters of a game that easily could have gone Miami's way had the Dolphins forced overtime. Brock Osweiler managed the QB24 finish against the Patriots in Week 12 last year, however, while the low total (40.5) on Texans-Patriots suggests we should have low-scoring expectations on both sides. Coming off QB16 and QB26 finishes in Weeks 1-2, Osweiler is a mid-range to low-end option in two-quarterback leagues. ... Still missing MLB Dont'a Hightower (knee) and LE Rob Ninkovich (suspension), the Patriots gave up a combined rushing line of 27-126-2 (4.67 YPC) to Cardinals and Dolphins RBs in Weeks 1-2. This looks like an above average matchup for Lamar Miller, whose touch totals through two games are 32 and 27 after he topped 20 touches just six times in four years with Miami. As the Brissett-quarterbacked Patriots seem unlikely to pour points on the Texans' elite defense, game script should not become a significant obstacle for Miller.
Osweiler's Weeks 1-2 target distribution: DeAndre Hopkins 19; Will Fuller 18; Lamar Miller, Braxton Miller, and Stephen Anderson 6; Ryan Griffin 4. ... The Patriots held Hopkins (3-52) in check when these teams met last Week 14, primarily using RCB Logan Ryan against him in man coverage. Ryan has been up and down early this year, giving up most of Larry Fitzgerald's 8-81-2 receiving line in Week 1 and several of DeVante Parker's big catches last Sunday. Hopkins has scored a touchdown in each of Houston's first two games. He had his way (7-113-1) with Chiefs CBs Phillip Gaines and Marcus Peters last week. ... Fuller figures to see more of LCB Malcolm Butler, whom Pro Football Focus charged with 139 yards allowed against the Dolphins after he checked Michael Floyd (3-61-0) in the opener. Fuller has topped 100 yards in each of his first two NFL games. Hopkins and Fuller's targets will be further solidified with slot receiver Braxton Miller (hamstring) inactive. Fuller has played himself into every-week WR2/3 treatment.
Score Prediction: Patriots 20, Texans 17