New England Patriots vs Houston Texans: 5 Key Matchups to Watch

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New England Patriots
Mandatory Credit: Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

Each week the game comes down to the match-ups. These are the top 5 match-ups that will determine which team emerges victorious.

The New England Patriots are finally back on the field in a meaningful game after their disappointing end to the 2017 season in Super Bowl 52. They open the 2018 season with a tough match-up against a talented Houston Texans team.

Last year in week three the Patriots came from behind to win 36-33 against the Texans. Tom Brady had to throw for 378 yards and five touchdowns despite being sacked five times and the team rushing for less 60 yards and 3.0 yards per attempt (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted).

Deshaun Watson had his breakout game as a rookie throwing for 301 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 41 yards. His ability to break containment and make ridiculous throws outside the pocket drove the New England defense crazy.

This week’s match-up will be broadcast on CBS and can be seen locally on WBZ-TV Channel 4 out of Boston and on WPRI Channel 12 out of Providence. CBS sends out its top broadcast team as Jim Nantz will handle play-by-play duties with Tony Romo as the color analyst. Tracy Wolfson will work the sidelines.

On the radio, this week’s game will be broadcast to a national audience on Sports USA. Larry Kahn and Doug Plank will call the game. Locally, the Patriots’ flagship station 98.5 FM the Sports Hub will carry the game on the Patriots Radio Network. The Patriots are on the radio on 41 stations throughout the nation and will feature broadcasters Bob Socci doing play-by-play and local media member and former Patriots backup quarterback Scott Zolak adding color analysis.

Now that you know how to watch and listen to the game, here are the five key match-ups to watch that will determine if the Patriots start 2018 in a winning way against the Houston Texans or if Deshaun Watson will pull off the road upset.

  1. NE TE Rob Gronkowski vs HOU S Tyrann Mathieu

Gronk vs the Honey Badger. What a match-up!

Tyrann Mathieu has never matched-up against Rob Gronkowski and Tom Brady until Sunday afternoon. No one knows the importance of slowing Gronkowski more than Houston head coach Bill O’Brien who was the offensive coordinator in New England for Gronkowski’s breakout season in 2011 when he had 90 receptions for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns.

Mathieu will not be on Gronkowski exclusively as Houston’s defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel will mix coverages and likely have safeties Mathieu and Kareem Jackson (another converted cornerback), linebacker Zach Cunningham and cornerback Kevin Johnson or slot corner Aaron Colvin on him at one time or another.

The highlight will be Mathieu, who gives up considerable size at just five-foot-nine and 185 pounds, but his aggressive coverage skills and feistiness make his time covering Gronkowski must-see television.

  1. NE LT Trent Brown and RT Marcus Cannon vs HOU DE J.J. Watt and EDGE/JACK LB Jadeveon Clowney

In the 2016 Divisional Round of the playoffs and last year’s week three match-up saw Tom Brady under constant pressure from the Houston Texans’ pass rush. In 2016 Houston was missing J.J. Watt and last year he was clearly less than 100% in his last game before heading to injured reserve. New England was without right tackle Marcus Cannon in that game.

This year has a healthy Marcus Cannon and healthy J.J. Watt in what should be a titanic tussle with the huge and athletic Watt matching up with the nimble giant Cannon on the right side of the offense.

On the other side, New England let Nate Solder–who had lost a step over the past three years and was susceptible to speed rushers–walk away in free agency. A trade with San Francisco netted the massive Brown who fits the New England tackle profile far better than he fit the Shanahan model for the 49ers (who was looking for smaller and more athletic players).

Brown will have his hands full going against Clowney–when he can find him. Houston moves Clowney all over the line and rushes him from different spots seeking a more favorable match-up. Houston still has Whitney Mercilus to account for on defense. Mercilus missed 11 games last year but had a combined 19.5 sacks in 2015 and 2016.

This could be the most crucial matchup in the game: if the New England offensive line gives Brady time to get comfortable and throw, it could be a long day for the Texans’ defense again.

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  1. NE WR Phillip Dorsett and Chris Hogan vs HOU CB Johnathan Joseph and Kevin Johnson

Of course, Brady needs to have someone to throw the ball to as well. The Boston sports media would have you believe the Patriots are doomed and have no viable wide receivers. Sports talk radio callers lament the Patriots not ridiculously overpaying back-up slot wide receiver Danny Amendola and allowing him to go to Miami. Julian Edelman is suspended for four games and Brandin Cooks was traded to Los Angeles.

Of course, Brady threw for over 3,500 yards and had a halftime lead in the AFC Championship game in 2006 throwing to Reche Caldwell, Chad Jackson, Doug Gabriel and street free agents. In 2010 he had an MVP season with Wes Welker, a 31-year old Deion Branch, and Brandon Tate as his wide receivers after Randy Moss was let go.

Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett are perfectly capable wide receivers. Hogan was on pace for a breakout season before a shoulder injury shut him down in the second half and he came back to have over 100 yards receiving in the Super Bowl. With a full offseason and training camp with the Patriots, Dorsett should finally be ready to make an impact in the complicated New England offensive system.

Kevin Johnson was the poster boy for the struggles of the Texans last season as ProFootballFocus.com lambasted him as their lowest-graded cornerback last season. Kareem Jackson was moved to safety and Johnathan Joseph is 34 years old at a position that has a short list of effective players over age 32.

Discounting Dorsett and Hogan is a major tactical error in the analysis of New England and if Houston does the same it could be a long afternoon.   

 

  1. NE LB Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower vs HOU RB Lamar Miller

Houston will do more than depend on the arm and legs of exciting quarterback Deshaun Watson. They will need to keep the New England offense on the sidelines by running the football. For that, they turn to former Miami Dolphin Lamar Miller.

Miller averaged a disappointing 3.7 yards per carry in 2017 gaining just 888 yards as the feature back in the offense. In 2016 he had over 1,000 yards on the ground and averaged 4.0 yards per attempt in just 14 games. Just 27 years old, the Texans have high hopes for Miller bouncing back behind a revamped offensive line.

New England struggled on defense last year without linebacker Dont’a Hightower. While Kyle Van Noy stepped into his role, he was more effective with Hightower at the “Sam” linebacker in the offense and Van Noy in the “Will” role using his athleticism to make plays rather than taking on offensive linemen.

New England needs Van Noy and Hightower on the field (and thumper rookie Ja’Whaun Bentley) on the field to get back to a defense that can shut down an opponent’s running game and put them in second and third-and-long situations where they can bring the pass rush and get back to forcing turnovers.

Houston will test the defense early with Miller. They need him to set the offense up in makeable second and third down situations to truly make Watson unpredictable and dangerous.

  1. NE CB Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe and Jonathan Jones vs HOU WR DeAndre Hopkins, Bruce Ellington and Will Fuller

Of course, Houston has the perpetual headache of premier wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to give opposing defenses headaches. As the top receiving target in Houston, he should get plenty of attention from New England’s starting cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe. Gilmore may take him in man-coverage but Rowe would likely have help over the top.

Last year it was Bruce Ellington who had a surprising performance making a handful of big plays before disappearing back into mediocrity for the rest of the season. In 2016, Houston struggled to find another wide receiver to step up in the playoffs (of course, it could have been due to Brock Osweiler’s terrible quarterback play).  

Houston desperately needs another wide receiver to step-up opposite Hopkins. Whether Ellington, Fuller, rookie Keke Coutee or perpetual disappointment Sammie Coates, they will need a receiving threat to take pressure off Hopkins.

Gilmore was one of the best cornerbacks in the second half of 2017 and was a true shutdown player in the playoffs. Rowe stepped-up his game last season as well once he was healthy and made Malcolm Butler expendable. Having a healthy Jonathan Jones at slot cornerback should help negate Ellington this time around.

 

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