Scoring points wasn’t going to be an issue for the Patriots last Sunday. Their quick-passing attack easily neutralized J.J. Watt and the Texans’ pass rush. Rob Gronkowski and Shane Vereen were clear mismatches for the replacement linebackers, and the Texans’ young safeties don’t scare anyone.
But frankly, the Patriots were fortunate to escape with a 34-31 win. For the first time all season, Bill Belichick couldn’t figure out how to slow down the opposing offense. He previously thwarted Drew Brees and Peyton Manning, but Case Keenum, an undrafted rookie making just his sixth career start, gave him fits.
Keenum completed only 15 of 30 passes, but he had an answer for everything Belichick threw at him and finished with 272 yards and a lot of respect from the New England sideline.
When the Patriots played it safe with zone coverage, Keenum patiently sat in the pocket and found Andre Johnson streaking across the middle on multiple occasions.
When the Patriots played man coverage, Keenum showed good zip on slants and out patterns to Johnson, firing the ball just out of Aqib Talib’s reach, and he hit DeAndre Hopkins for a 66-yard gain.
On the few occasions the Patriots did blitz (6 out of 31 passing plays), Keenum found his hot receiver and hit running back Dennis Johnson out of the backfield on a perfect 11-yard lob. And Keenum showed an excellent ability to throw on the run — first with an impressive throw off his back foot with Jamie Collins in his face, then with two excellent throws in the fourth quarter.
If not for a couple of ill-timed drops by the Texans in the fourth quarter — including one by the usually sure-handed Johnson — the Patriots easily could have left Houston as losers. And Keenum would be the talk of the NFL this week, instead of an anonymous rookie playing out the string for a 2-10 team.
Other observations from Sunday’s win after reviewing the coaches’ tape:
When the Patriots had the ball . . .
■ Center Ryan Wendell and right guard Dan Connolly had a little trouble at times, but the offensive line was excellent overall in pass protection, allowing only one sack in 42 passing plays. We counted 16 Houston blitzes, and Watt seemed to twist or stunt on every single play. But the five offensive linemen worked well together, correctly handled their assignments, and kept Tom Brady clean for most of the game. Nate Solder had a really nice bounce-back game after allowing two sacks to the Broncos’ Von Miller. Logan Mankins had another nice game, but did miss a block that would’ve sprung Vereen for a big gain on a screen pass.
■ Ben Tate had 102 yards and three touchdowns, but I thought the best running back Sunday was LeGarrette Blount, who ran like a 250-pound tank. He had only 12 carries for 44 yards, but the Texans simply could not bring him down. On his first three runs, he had 5, 4, and 6 yards after contact, and for the day, we counted 25 yards after contact. On his touchdown run, Blount was initially hit at the 6 and again at the 2. He ran right through former teammate Jeff Tarpinian.
■ Speaking of Tarpinian, I can only imagine how excited Brady got when he saw the former Patriots backup linebacker, cut at the end of training camp, lined up one-on-one on Gronkowski in the first quarter. Gronk ran a slow-developing “chair” route — up, out, and up again — but Brady had a full five seconds in the pocket to wait for Gronk to break free. Tarpinian had no chance as Gronk made the shoestring catch and rolled into the end zone.
However, Brady fell back into the habit of forcing too many throws to Gronk, who caught 6 of 12 passes thrown his way. On one third-down play in the first quarter, Brady could have hit Vereen or Julian Edelman on a short throw but forced it incomplete to Gronk in tight coverage. And Brady wasn’t able to step into a throw to Gronk in the first quarter, leading to an easy interception for Johnathan Joseph.
Brady was much better in the second half, and his touch throws to Vereen and Edelman were beautiful. Vereen definitely was inbounds and should have been given the TD.
■ The offense was much more efficient when the Patriots got Vereen and Danny Amendola more involved in the second half; 8 of their 11 targets came after halftime. Amendola caught all five passes thrown his way, against five different defenders. And interestingly enough, they went to their “big” personnel in the fourth quarter when they needed points: two tight ends, or one tight end and a fullback. They got nice chunk plays to Edelman using just a two-man route.
■ Both Mankins and Gronk got their ankles rolled up on during the game, and Kenbrell Thompkins left the game with a left hip injury suffered in the first quarter when he made a leaping catch and landed on the hip without breaking his fall. Situations to monitor this week.
■ Tight end Matthew Mulligan and fullback James Develin were unsung heroes, and each was often used as an extra blocker to help neutralize the pass rush. Mulligan played a season-high 35 snaps (out of 70) and Develin tied his season high with 29. Develin, especially, provided valuable versatility; he lined up at fullback, tight end, and slot receiver, and touched the ball for the first time all season — a third-and-1 conversion, a short-yardage touchdown, and a 12-yard catch for a first down.
When the Texans had the ball . . .
■ It’s one thing to play safe coverages and concede the run, as the Patriots did for the second week in a row. But that doesn’t mean the front seven isn’t allowed to get off their blocks and make plays. And again, for the second week in a row, the Patriots — particularly Chris Jones, Joe Vellano, Dont’a Hightower, and Isaac Sopoaga — were dominated by the opposing offensive line. However, Vellano and Jones deserve credit for pinching the hole and stuffing Houston on a third-and-1 attempt.
The Texans rushed for 121 yards and four touchdowns on a 4.3-yard average, and Tate was barely touched as he scampered through the defense for three touchdowns. The Patriots started five rookies on defense (Jones, Vellano, Collins, Logan Ryan, and Duron Harmon) and it showed.
■ The Patriots have mostly been a press-man team this year, but they played a lot more zone in an effort to confuse Keenum. The only ones who were confused, though, were the Patriots. Ryan appeared to be in the wrong coverage when Johnson streaked wide open across the middle in the first quarter. Talib and Kyle Arrington also had a coverage mixup, leaving Keshawn Martin wide open for a 29-yard gain (they were lucky it wasn’t a touchdown). On the Texans’ final drive, the Patriots played mostly man coverage.
Pretty horrible game for Arrington, who lost the ball on Hopkins’s 66-yard catch and then whiffed on the tackle. Arrington played only 16 of 60 snaps, compared with 57 for Ryan.
■ Perhaps even more impressive was that Keenum completed passes on five of the six occasions the Patriots blitzed, including the 66-yarder. New England’s only sack was a coverage sack by Sopoaga. I don’t know if Keenum is the Texans’ long-term answer at quarterback, but he was excellent.
■ Matthew Slater, Tavon Wilson, Devin McCourty, Dane Fletcher, and Collins all missed tackles on Martin’s game-opening 50-yard kickoff return. But Brandon Bolden and Wilson had excellent blocks on Josh Boyce’s 41-yard kickoff return. Overall, we suggest Boyce learn to take a knee more often when the opposing team kicks the ball deep into the corner of the end zone.
■ Josh Victorian should have been called for interference on Edelman in the fourth quarter. There was clear knee-to-knee contact before Edelman could field the punt.
■ All three of Stephen Gostkowski’s 50-plus-yard field goal attempts looked like they could have been good from 60.
■ Brady: 18 of 23 for 263 yards and three touchdown drives in the second half.
■ Gronkowski and Edelman: Caught 15 of 24 passes for 228 yards and a touchdown.
■ K Stephen Gostkowski: Drilled two 53-yarders, and 5 of 7 kickoffs went for touchbacks.Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.