It wasn’t that long ago that the Patriots and Texans were locking horns down in Houston during Week 14 of last season.
Many of the faces are still the same, particularly on the Houston sideline: Bill O’Brien, Romeo Crennel, Mike Vrabel, J.J. Watt, Vince Wilfork, DeAndre Hopkins, and Jadeveon Clowney, among other familiar names.
But nine months later, the matchup Thursday night at Gillette Stadium couldn’t be more different.
Both teams have a new quarterback — Brock Osweiler in for Brian Hoyer, and either Jacoby Brissett or Jimmy Garoppolo in for Tom Brady. The complexion of each offense is totally different under the new quarterbacks.
For the Patriots, Julian Edelman is back, but Rob Gronkowski may be out. Brandon LaFell and Keshawn Martin are gone, and three-fifths of the offensive line is new.
The Texans have a new running back in Lamar Miller and a new speed receiver in first-round pick Will Fuller, and that Watt fellow won’t be wearing a cast on his hand as he was last year.
So what to expect Thursday night at Gillette Stadium? To get a better read on the Texans, who have opened the season with home wins against Chicago and Kansas City, we flipped on the All-22 film of their 24-13 win over the Chiefs from last Sunday.
■ Coordinator: George Godsey
■ Key skill players: QB Brock Osweiler, RB Lamar Miller, WR DeAndre Hopkins, WR Will Fuller, WR Jaelen Strong, TE C.J. Fiedorowicz.
■ Personnel notes: WR Braxton Miller is questionable with a hamstring injury, likely meaning more snaps for Strong. C Nick Martin, the team’s second-round pick, suffered a season-ending ankle injury in preseason. He is replaced by Greg Mancz, who was an undrafted rookie in 2015. LT Duane Brown has been inactive the first two weeks of the season with a quadriceps injury and has been replaced by nine-year journeyman Chris Clark.
■ What to expect: Texans owner Bob McNair opened up his checkbook this offseason to buy O’Brien a shiny new offense. Osweiler is the new franchise quarterback, Miller the workhorse running back, and Fuller the home run threat to go along with Hopkins, a first-time Pro Bowler last year.
And, wouldn’t you know it, the offense runs through those four players. Miller, Hopkins, and Fuller have combined to gain 592 of the Texans’ 695 yards this year (85.2 percent), while Miller’s 53 carries are second in the NFL. The Texans are top-heavy on offense, and those top players are very dangerous.
They haven’t quite jelled yet as a complete unit, though. The Texans are just 17th in points per game (21.0) and 19th in yards (347.5).
The $37 million question, of course, is whether Osweiler is a worthy franchise quarterback. He has thrown for 499 yards, three touchdowns, and three interceptions in two games, completing just 60.3 percent of his passes. Osweiler threw two picks in last week’s win against the Chiefs (including one in the end zone), and couldn’t get the ball in the end zone from a first-and-goal at the 3. The Texans went 4 for 15 on third downs, and 0 for 4 on touchdowns inside the red zone.
But Osweiler can still rip some big throws, which the Patriots saw last year in their 30-24 overtime loss to Denver, as he threw for 270 yards and a touchdown.
Osweiler is most effective when he has a well-defined first read, and he can make all the throws — deep, medium, short, over the middle, etc. He’ll throw a lot of play-action slants and bubble screens, but Godsey does a good job of using one play to set up another — throwing several screens, then faking a screen and throwing deep, for example. The key is taking away Osweiler’s first read and making him hold onto the football longer than he wants to.
The home run potential of Hopkins and Fuller makes the Texans particularly dangerous.
The Chiefs saw it on the Texans’ first drive when Fuller burned them on a double move and caught a 53-yard pass down to the 3. Fuller already has nine catches for 211 yards and a touchdown this year (23.4 average), while Hopkins has 12 catches for 167 yards and two touchdowns.
Last year, the Patriots put Logan Ryan on Hopkins, limiting Hopkins to just three catches for 53 yards, while Malcolm Butler shut down Nate Washington. An educated guess is that the Patriots keep Ryan on Hopkins and use Butler on Fuller, but Butler was hobbled by an ankle injury last weekend and will need some help.
Given how top-heavy the Texans are on offense, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Patriots use a lot of the Cover 2 they showed last Sunday against the Dolphins, with Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon being used over the top to double Hopkins and Fuller and forcing Osweiler to find his third and fourth options.
The Texans don’t utilize a lot of motion in their offense, but when they do, it’s often an indicator for the run. They will slide a tight end or wide receiver across the formation to add an extra blocker where they want to run — although once in a while, they will shift a tight end one way and run back to the weak side.
So the Patriots have to be disciplined in their gaps and can’t overpursue on runs.
Miller has 189 rushing yards through two games, but is averaging just 3.6 yards per carry. That’s largely because the offensive line is the Texans’ weakness, particularly without their starting center or left tackle. Last year, the Patriots zone blitzed the Texans’ offensive line to death, mixing up their pass rush to get six sacks against Hoyer.
■ Coordinator: Romeo Crennel
■ Key skill players: DE J.J. Watt, DE Jadeveon Clowney, NT Vince Wilfork, MLB Benardrick McKinney, OLB Whitney Mercilus, CB Johnathan Joseph, CB Kareem Jackson.
■ Personnel notes: Watt didn’t miss any games following offseason back surgery, and played 58 of 64 snaps last week against the Chiefs. Clowney plays a lot more defensive end than rush outside linebacker, the position he was initially drafted to play. Linebacker Brian Cushing is out six weeks with a torn MCL, replaced by third-year pro Max Bullough.
■ What to expect: The Texans have been stingy on defense this year, although the Bears and Chiefs don’t exactly have the most explosive offenses. The Texans are third in the NFL in points allowed (13.0 per game) and yards allowed (274.5), and their nine sacks lead the league. Outside linebacker John Simon has 2½ sacks, Mercilus has two, and Watt had 1½ against the Chiefs.
They run the same 3-4 scheme that they’ve used for years, with Wilfork on the nose tackle (30 of 64 snaps last week). Watt seems to prefer lining up across from the right tackle, but he and Clowney switch sides frequently, and sometimes line up next to each other.
Clowney, who had two sacks against the Patriots last year, looked athletic and healthy last week, and might finally be starting to fulfill his promise as a former No. 1 overall pick.
The Texans do a great job of disguising their rush, similar to what the Patriots do. They’ll play five, six, or even seven guys up on the line of scrimmage, but rush only four, and it’s up to the offensive line to figure out who is coming and who is dropping. Against the Chiefs, the Texans’ confusion caused Alex Smith to hold onto the ball for an extra second, leading to four sacks.
Watt, Clowney, and Wilfork are a handful, of course, but the Patriots were able to push them around last year by attacking them sideways with double-teams and wham blocks from the tight ends and fullbacks.
The Texans also are susceptible to big runs. Kansas City’s Charcandrick West had runs of 28 and 21 yards on Sunday, while Spencer Ware had a 25-yarder. Overall the Chiefs rushed for 119 yards, averaging 6.3 yards per carry. Thursday could be a big night for LeGarrette Blount, especially if Brissett is at quarterback.
The Texans’ secondary is average, and they mostly play man-to-man coverage but will switch to Cover 1 at times, relying mostly on the front seven to get pressure on the quarterback. While they certainly miss Cushing in the middle of their defense, the Texans still have excellent linebackers in Mercilus and McKinney, who blitzes frequently and always seems to be around the ball.