We are finally here! It is officially game week and week one is upon us. On paper, this team probably does not have the talent that they had in the past year or in other years, but they still have more than enough to win against any team at any level. After all, the Patriots have won at least 12 games in every season since 2009, when they won 10 games, but they haven’t finished below the 10 win mark since 2002. The consistency is staggering and something we most likely will never see again in the NFL.
The first game of the season is one that is sure to challenge the Patriots. The Texans possess a lot of dimensions that are sure to challenge the Patriots with their ferocious pass rush, dynamic dual-threat quarterback Deshaun Watson, and stud receiver DeAndre Hopkins.
In other words, it is the perfect way to start the season for the coaching staff and should give them a good feel for how players fit in what spot.
Here are some things to watch for:
1.) Patriots execution in containing Deshaun Watson
Going back to last year, and even before that, the Patriots have had trouble containing mobile quarterbacks. That problem will have to be solved if they hope to start the season off on the right track. Last year, which was Watson’s rookie season, the quarterback completed 22 of 33 passes for 301 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Watson also ran for 41 yards on eight carries. Although those do not look like great numbers, it was nearly enough to beat the Patriots save for a last-second touchdown by Brandin Cooks.
One thing that is important with any quarterback, but specifically a mobile one is that you have a controlled pass rush and do not rush past the quarterback, opening a lane to either run, throw on the run, or escape if necessary. This is perhaps the most important task for the Patriots front seven this week considering how much they struggled to hold a firm edge at the point of attack last year, both in the run game and with the pass rush. The onus will be on them to make sure Deshaun Watson is uncomfortable and stuck in the pocket as it closes in on him.
2.) How the offensive weapons are used
This is one that I am really curious to see. With Edelman now suspended, Burkhead now back practicing and seemingly healthy, how will Belichick and McDaniels use their weapons. One would expect to see a heavy dose of James White on screens as well as flanked out wide to try and get him in open space. You will undoubtedly also see a lot of Chris Hogan and Rob Gronkowski, but what else? Philip Dorsett seemed to develop a strong connection with Tom Brady in the preseason and should also be featured this year. One can expect he would get some deep shots with his speed and the increased efficiency of Tom Brady last season, but what else?
Jacob Hollister flashed but then was down with a hamstring injury for part of the preseason, Sony Michel had a knee procedure and just returned to practice as a rookie after missing almost all of the preseason, Cordarrelle Patterson has had trouble in the past running the right routes and learning the playbook but has a habit of producing “wow” plays, and Chad Hansen was just claimed into one of the toughest playbooks to learn in the NFL. That also is leaving out newcomer Jeremy Hill who should fit in as the team’s big back this year.
One would expect more emphasis on the passing attack considering the Texans had the fifth-best rushing defense in the league last year, and thus a bigger game for James White, than Jeremy Hill.
3.) Patriots tackles against Texans pass rush
The Texans obviously have a strong pass rush with J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus, and Jadeveon Clowney all being elite rushers, but why highlight the tackles?
Well, the interior is the same as last season with David Andrews and Shaq Mason being perhaps their best lineman last season. Joe Thuney was inconsistent but should be better with another year under his belt.
However, when looking at preseason reps Trent Brown flat out dominated at times, but then seemed to tire and his conditioning looked to be an issue with him being upright far too early and letting rushers around him and through him due to his loss of leverage. On the other side, Marcus Cannon missed almost all of the preseason, continuing a bad luck stretch for him that has seen him struggle with lower leg injuries.
With both tackles most likely not completely ready conditioning-wise, it would not be surprising to see LaAdrianWaddle sub in for both tackles at various points in the game. Last season Waddle proved to be able to handle himself well when forced into the game at either side. One thing is for sure though, if the tackles do not hold their own, it will be a long day for Brady and the offense.
4.) Will pass rush prove preseason was no fluke?; Will we see any difference with Flores calling the defense?
Everyone remembers the Super Bowl. The Patriots struggled to pressure Nick Foles and thus allowed him to carve through their defense like a hot knife through butter. Well, this preseason showed the opposite defense, one that was active and fast, and produced significantly more pressures. With the additions of Adrian Clayborn, the return to health of Derek Rivers, the growth of Deatrich Wise Jr. and Adam Butler, and the emergence of Ja’Whaun Bentley allowing Dont’a Hightower to rush more often, this team looks like their issues pressuring the quarterback are a thing of the past. This week is a good test with the Texans offensive line below average; this will be a good week to see how things look.
Look for Brian Flores to be aggressive in pressuring Deshaun Watson and making sure he feels the pressure early and often. The key will be not letting him escape as mentioned above. Mentioned above, Wise Jr. is one player not talked about enough. He came on strong last year early but faded late. This year he looks like he could claim a much larger role, one that sees him coming up with as many as 10 sacks.
-David Albiani is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media. He covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @david_albiani