Well, that win streak was fun while it lasted.
Confidence was high coming off an unexpected win against the Baltimore Ravens last Sunday. With two wins in a row under their belt, it seemed things finally started to go the Patriots way this season and the hope was it would continue in Houston.
The Texans have been struggling this year, entering this game with a 2-7 record and firing coach Bill O’Brian a few weeks ago. Deshaun Watson has been a bright spot for the team though and showed that once again in his dominating performance over the Patriots defense.
The New England defense has been quite the force the last couple of seasons and has taken precedence over the offense. That was not the case this week, though. What happened to that bend but not break performance that this team is known for? Where did that top-tier secondary go in this game?
The offense started off great, scoring on their first drive of the game. They struggled for the rest of the first half though but seemed to make the adjustments needed coming out of the locker room. Play calling still seems to be a bit of an issue this year, and it may be due to Josh McDaniels’ unfamiliarity with the type of quarterback Cam Newton is. But there was hope this wouldn’t remain a problem this late into the season.
Other than the usual struggles, there were some other spots that raised some eyebrows. After playing great against a mobile quarterback last week in Lamar Jackson, the defense didn’t have a repeat of success against Deshaun Watson.
Fortunately for all the struggles there were, there were also some positive spots this week, particularly on offense.
Despite another loss, not all was bad in this game. Week to week there seems to be an emergence of a different player contributing regardless of the game result. With Jakobi Meyers taking the driver’s seat the last few weeks and the league taking notice, other receivers needed to step up in his place as he was virtually shut down all game long. In this game, that was Damiere Byrd.
The offense did take a big hit losing Rex Burkhead to an unfortunate leg injury in this game. This left the door wide open for James White to take over his workload, and he did just that on Sunday. As another dynamic half-back, White will fill in nicely as expected.
As the weeks go on, this offense continues progressing in the right direction. Its identity still seems to be unclear, as the play-calling tends to be inconsistent from game to game. But this week showed once again that Cam Newton has success slinging the ball far downfield, while also having the benefit of a deep backfield.
The 2020 Patriots have become a run heavy team, but that wasn’t the case in Sunday’s loss. With Jakobi Meyers essentially being shut down in this game, Damiere Byrd went on to have the best game of his short career with the Patriots. Ending the game with 6 catches for 132 yards and a touchdown, Damiere made his job look easy in Houston.
Not only did he average 22 yards-per-reception, Byrd also had 5 of his 6 catches total for 15 yards or more. The most memorable catch came on the second drive of the 3rd quarter, when he caught a dime pass for a 42-yard touchdown, bringing the Patriots back in the game.
It’s obvious there is chemistry that remains between Byrd and Cam Newton from their days in Carolina together. That trust has trickled into this season as Damiere leads the receivers on the team with 469 yards on the season and 2nd in catches with 32.
It appeared that Meyers was being treated as a WR1 by the Houston defense, shutting him down for most of the game. If this continues for the remainder of the season, one would guess Byrd will get the chance to contribute more each week.
It has been a very up and down season for the new Patriots quarterback, but in this game, Cam Newton was able to demonstrate again that he’s still got it. As the Patriots have predominately been a run heavy team this year, Newton hasn’t thrown the ball as much as years past. In Houston though, we saw flashes of his week 2 performance in Seattle, where he threw for 397 yards.
On the first drive, the game plan was to stick with the run game since that has been very successful for New England this year. But as the game went on, that plan was abandoned, and Newton began his passing attack.
The numbers will show it was a good day for the passing offense, as Cam finished the game 26/40 for 365 yards, 1 touchdown and averaged 9.1 yards-per-pass. But not all was great for him in this game. There were several times where Newton held the ball too long, having to throw it away or got sacked. He also had 4 passes deflected at the line of scrimmage by J.J Watt, one of which almost resulted in an interception. Fortunately, Newton was able to slap the ball down to the ground before the potential turnover.
There were also a few passes that Newton threw too low to the receiver, specifically N’Keal Harry, that could’ve resulted in some good yardage. This could be from the Houston defense hurrying him all game long, knocking him down 8 times along with 2 sacks. But could also go hand-in-hand with waiting too long to make the pass.
Regardless of these struggles, Newton was able to have a 4th straight game without an INT and the 3rd game without a turnover. His incredible completion percentage also continued in this game, with him now averaging 68% on the season. (He ended his time in Carolina at only 59%) With each game, the offense continues to get better, especially with ball protection. As the schedule ahead is not going to be easy, it’s great to see the improvements made and continue to be made each week.
Despite Damien Harris getting most of the carries in this game, James White showed up once again as the dominant half-back that he is. With limited touches from the backfield this season, White has been a reliable receiver when needed.
When Rex Burkhead went out in the 3rd quarter, White was more involved in the passing game. He ended the day with 6 receptions for 64 yards, averaging 10.7 yards-per-catch, which are both close to his game highs this season.
James White has had a quieter season than previous years, but some of that is attributed to the family tragedy he has had to deal with this season. Missing a few games because of that, and the consistent usage of Damien Harris and Burkhead, White has not been utilized as often. However, we saw moments of his amazing performance in Super Bowl 51 on Sunday and hopefully that will continue next week.
On paper, a 2-7 team would seem like an easy W for most NFL teams. (not including the 0-10 Jets) But, as it has been said a million times, any team can beat any team on any given Sunday. Unfortunately for the Patriots, it was once again one of those Sunday’s.
It’s difficult to say why the team struggled so much in this game. The Texans have been uncharacteristically bad this season, falling to 25th in the league for points scored and 26th in points allowed. The defense was torched by tight ends all game long, and tromped on by Deshaun Watson’s pocket awareness and extension of plays. It seemed they couldn’t get a stop whatsoever.
The offense did their best to combat the defensive issues, having 365 yards and a touchdown for the day. They averaged 14 yards-per-reception too, and ended the game with a successful Hail Mary pass (outside of the end zone though. Thanks, Ryan Izzo). But it wasn’t enough to win the game.
The Patriots have really struggled over the last years to find a reliable punt/kick returner and unfortunately, that continues with Gunner Olszewski. With Julian Edelman being taken out of returns and Brandon Bolden opting out of the season, this left the team to throw Olszewski in as really their only choice.
It’s difficult to say if it has been a personal choice or if it has been directed to him by coaches, but it appears Gunner doesn’t like to get in the end zone for a touchback. On almost every return, he is out running for yards but is generally not getting passed the 25-yard-line.
It is important for a kick returner to try and put the offense into good position on the field. But despite his efforts, Olszewski has not been doing that this year. With an average of 23.4 yards per return, Cam Newton is having to work a bit harder to get down the field.
Coming into this game, the Patriots have had a long list of injured players throughout the season so far and the added a couple more names to that list on Sunday.
Early in the 3rd quarter, Rex Burkhead sustained a nasty leg injury that required him to be carted off the field and ruled out of the game immediately. It was later revealed it is believed Burkhead tore his ACL, ending his season in Houston.
It’s a tough loss for the Patriots, as Burkhead was on the path to have the best season of his career. He is one of the more versatile players on this roster and will be sorely missed the rest of the season.
Another big injury to this team was Isaiah Wynn going down in the 4th quarter with an apparent leg injury. The severity of the injury remains unknown currently, but he did not return to the game after the injury. Wynn is a constant stud on the offensive line for this team, so losing him for any length of time could be devastating.
It was another game with a long list of missed tackles for this Patriots defense in 2020. There was hope the success of last week would continue this week, especially with Stephon Gilmore finally returning to the field. But as it has been an issue all season, the lack of successful tackling stood out like a sore thumb again.
J.C. Jackson has had quite the season, totaling 6 interceptions on the year. However, we did not get a game saving INT this week. There was no Duron Harmon moment in the 4th quarter and boy do we miss those. Other than that being unusual for Jackson this season, it was also unlike him to allow 5 catches for 87 yards. Time and time again, the team gave up big yardage and big plays, including Brandin Cooks’ 44-yard reception over Jackson. Even with two of Houston’s receivers getting taken out of the game due to injury, the defense couldn’t slow any of them down.
Jonathan Jones’ performance stood out as well, as it was also an unusual day for him. Jones gave up 7 catches on 9 targets for 67 yards and a touchdown by Keke Coutee seconds before halftime. There really wasn’t a whole lot more Jones could do, as he was right on Coutee in the endzone throughout the play. But as the defensive line was giving Watson a TON of time in the pocket, the play was extended and Coutee was able to get in front of Jones for the TD.
The secondary had their struggles with tackling in this game, but the defensive line had a much worse day. Houston came into this game as the 7th most sacked team in the league, but New England couldn’t get anywhere near Watson, giving him only his 4th career game without a sack.
The game plan appeared to be to try containing Watson in the pocket, limiting the use of his legs in this game. But that didn’t happen either. The linebackers and defensive ends only pressured Watson on 2 of his 37 drop-backs. And when they would get close to him, Watson was able to break away inside or outside the pocket to extend the play. Because of this, he was able to complete 76% of his passes on the day and score 3 touchdowns on 4 trips to the red zone. In the first half alone, he made 18 completions for 241 yards, both career highs.
Did the Patriots underestimate this team? Did their 2-7 record give them the impression that this would be an easy win? That’s not very Patriot or Belichick-like, but as the team had been playing so well the last few weeks, this performance left you with many questions.
Penalties and Lack-There-Of
Now it’s almost never a good look to be someone that puts any blame onto the officiating, as almost all teams have to deal with badly called games. But this game was one that stood out due to how nitpicky the referees were with what they did and didn’t call.
N’Keal Harry was flagged twice for a few questionable calls. There were a few instances of obvious holding by the Texans that were not called, including one not called on Texans’ center Nick Martin who clearly held Carl Davis on Watson’s rushing TD.
Of course all good teams find ways to overcome these bad calls, or non-calls, but the Patriots weren’t able to do that. As this was another game lost by only one score, they weren’t able to make enough positive plays to win the game which seems to be the theme this season.
Tight End Coverage
Is there a player on the Patriots that can successfully cover a tight end? Many players have been assigned a tight end this season but not many have done it well.
In week 3 against the Las Vegas Raiders, Joejuan Williams, Devin McCourty and Jonathan Jones were great at shutting down Darren Waller and only allowing 2 catches for 9 yards on the day. Against Houston, Kyle Dugger originally started the game in this role but was later replaced by Williams. Neither of which helped.
The Texans’ tight ends accounts for 9 catches on 11 targets for 134 yards, with the bulk of that coming from Jordan Akins. Before this game, Akins had only 17 catches on the season for 192 yards. How was this guy able to produce so much in this game? Are the Patriots missing Patrick Chung more than ever?
The road ahead is a steep one, and the defense will be tested once again next week by a speedy quarterback in Kyler Murray. If they are able to implement some of what they did against Baltimore last week and learn from their mistakes against Houston, it’s possible they will be more successful.
The offense looks to be on the right track. Damiere Byrd and Jakobi Meyers could be a great pairing and James White can fill in for Burkhead fantastically. Sony Michel will also be set to return, was he was just taken off of injured reserve, which will add even more depth to this offense.
With Cam Newton continuing his trajectory upward, it’ll be interesting to see what the game plan will be offensively next week. Will we see another high passing game from Cam? Or will there be another game of run domination?
(Photo credits: Damiere Byrd and Deshaun Watson – David J. Phillip of AP Photo & James White – Troy Taormina of USA TODAY Sports)
–Sara Marshall is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage and covers the New England Patriots. Follow her on Twitter @sarmarxo