New England’s defense has built its reputation dispatching many a young quarterback this season on the way to a 10-1 record.
Of course the lone loss came on the road against game-changing MVP candidate Lamar Jackson and the Ravens.
As the calendar flips to December and the schedule brings the post-Thanksgiving games that are so emphasized in New England, the Patriots go on the road again to face another offense led by a young, athletic quarterback in Houston’s Deshaun Watson.
“He can extend plays, he can run, he can extend the throw, accurate at all three levels,” Bill Belichick said this week of his defense’s latest challenge. “He’s a tough guy to handle, hard guy to tackle. He makes plays on his own. Sometimes there’s some plays that are designed for him to handle the ball, carry the ball, but sometimes not. He makes good decisions.”
Under Watson’s leadership and combined with a strong running game, Houston (7-4) has been able to ride the NFL’s No. 7 offense to first place in the AFC South. The Texans’ passing attack has a number of potent targets, most notably DeAndre Hopkins who is second in the league with 81 receptions. Will Fuller adds another dimension with big-play ability that is a characteristic of the Houston assault that Belichick knows his dominant defense must deal with.
“(Watson) and the Texans have made a lot of explosive plays,” Belichick said. “He’s very, very good. He’s a very accurate downfield passer, he’s made some great throws on double-moves, seam routes, post patterns, go routes, things like that. And of course, we all know he’s a very athletic guy with the ball in his hands. So, [he is> dangerous, can score from anywhere at any time, doesn’t take long. It’ll be a big challenge for us for 60 minutes, but even with a few seconds to go, it’s a long way from – any game’s a long way from being over if he has his hands on the ball.”
Other than its struggles with Jackson, New England has proven itself quite capable against other talented young quarterbacks in recent weeks like Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz and Dallas’ Dak Prescott, guys capable of making things happen with both their arms and their legs. Watson is next in line.
“We’re playing against some of the best, and I think that’s why you prepare, that’s why you work hard in preseason, throughout the season, is for these games,” safety Devin McCourty said. “Deshaun Watson is right in the mix with all of those guys of ability, playmaking out there – not just obviously throwing the ball, but just one of the best playmakers back there playing quarterback. So, we’ve just got to do a good job of trying to contain him, and take advantage of when we do do a good job of keeping him in the pocket, of covering guys. I think every time you play a quarterback that’s able to be mobile and makes plays, everyone talks about just keeping him in the pocket. I think it goes hand-in-hand. Like we always talk about, if they do a good job on the rush, we’ve got to do a good job in coverage. And I think if we do a good job in coverage, it has to marry up. They’ve got to do a good job in the rush. We can’t not cover guys for two seconds. At the beginning of the play, [if a> guy gets wide open, it won’t matter how we rush. He’ll just get rid of the ball and they’ll get big plays the whole game. So, it’s going to be one of those team efforts. We’re going to all have to play well.”
Of course that’s something the New England defense has done just about every week out this season.
As the hours wind down to another Sunday night road game for New England, here are some keys to the Patriots’ latest battle with a young, athletic, playmaking quarterback.
Wellness check – A week after Marcus Cannon battled through an illness to draw Belichick’s praise for his work in the win over the Cowboys, a big chunk of the New England roster is apparently under the weather. Nine different Patriots missed practice time during the week due to illness, including Dont’a Hightower and Isaiah Wynn both missing multiple practice sessions in their entirety. Players were reportedly even wearing masks in the Gillette Stadium locker room to try to avoid the spread of germs. Leading up to kickoff and into the game it will be worth noting any players who are not feeling well and might have their performances adversely affected in the big game in Houston.
Stay on/get off – Third down has been huge for the Patriots on both sides of the ball this season. Defensively, New England has the NFL’s No. 1 third down defense as it prepares to face Houston’s No. 6 third down offense. While the battle appears to be a fair fight on paper, it’s hard to bet against just how dominant the Patriots have been on third down this season. The same has not been true for Tom Brady’s inconsistent offense. New England is ranked No. 17 on third down offense at this point, but that could change facing the NFL’s 31st-ranked third down defense in Houston. Depending on the health of his targets, Brady could find more success on the money down thanks to the Texans’ issues both in the pass rush and coverage.
Sony, Sony, Sony can run it again – Second-year running back Sony Michel is coming off one of his best games of the season, his first contest toting the ball 20-plus times with a 4-plus-yard average since Week 2. The return of Wynn to the lineup helped the effort. Given everything going on with the passing game and receiver situation, it would certainly be beneficial to keep the momentum going on the ground. That’s a possibility for Michel and Co. against a suspect Houston rush defense that’s 24th in the league in yards-per-carry allowed this season.
Four kickers with Forbath – The Patriots will field their fourth different kicker of the season with the reported addition of Kai Forbath after Nick Folk had a reported appendectomy on Thanksgiving morning. Forbath is joining his fourth NFL team, having last kicked in three games for the Jaguars in 2018 when he hit four of five field goals and all three of his PATs. Given the tight games the Patriots have been playing in recent weeks – needing complementary contributions from all three phases – a change at kicker with a short time for him to get comfortable with rookie holder Jake Bailey certainly has to be at least a minor concern.
Tom’s time – Sure there is plenty of reason to focus on the impressive young quarterbacks that the Patriots have been facing this season. But, there is as much reason or more to focus on what Brady is still doing. Now battling an elbow injury, Brady has dealt with a suspect offensive line, lifeless running game and an ever-changing group of targets in the passing game. Through it all Brady has found a way to get the job done. The Texans’ lackluster pass defense could offer Brady and Co. a chance to feel a bit better about the production and potential of the New England passing attack. The defense and special teams units deserve all the attention they are getting this season, but Brady remains at the center of it all in Foxborough. He has a chance to dispatch another upstart opposing passer in Watson on Sunday night.
Prediction – Nothing seems to come easy of late for the Patriots, and that’s unlikely to change Sunday night in Houston. New England has had a razor thin margin for error and that may not change against a Texans team that despite its dismal loss in Baltimore a couple weeks ago, has proven itself capable of winning close games this season. Watson is a leader and a playmaker. The combination of Hopkins and Fuller will challenge the Patriots elite pass defense. Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson will challenge the Patriots at times rather suspect run defense. But Brady, Michel and the rest should also find a little more room to work than in recent weeks. Brady’s post-game emotions have been a topic of late and this could be a week for him to feel a bit better late Sunday night. Assuming the Patriots continue to win the turnover battle and play well on third down, they earn the benefit of the doubt in terms of the key situational plays that will decide this one in the second half. New England gets back to 30 points for the first time in more than a month, returning to Foxborough with a 30-17 win over Watson’s Texans.