FOXBOROUGH — For the better part of the Patriots’ 36-33 win against the Houston Texans on Sunday, New England’s offensive line was overpowered by aggressive pass rushers.
J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, and the rest of the Texans’ defensive front gave the Patriots’ offensive line fits. Tom Brady was sacked five times, perhaps none more jolting than Mercilus’s hit in the second quarter that knocked the ball loose. Clowney scooped up the fumble and sprinted 22 yards to give the Texans a 20-14 lead.
“The whole game we had our struggles and we did because they’re exceptional players,” left tackle Nate Solder said on Monday.
Those struggles were mitigated on the Patriots’ final drive with a bit of good fortune. Center David Andrews recovered a fumble after safety Marcus Gilchrist knocked the ball loose from Brady. Corey Moore nearly intercepted Brady’s deep pass for Brandin Cooks on second and 18 with a minute left but couldn’t maintain possession as he fell to the turf.
“When we needed it there, we got a couple of lucky breaks, I’m not going to lie,” Solder said. “That was a tremendous finish to a tough, tough game.”
Brady, who had been hit eight times, was afforded just enough time to pick through the Texans defense on the eight-play, 75-yard two-minute drill that ended with Brady’s 25-yard touchdown to Cooks.
On the penultimate play of the drive, tight end Rob Gronkowski chipped Watt to the outside. Right tackle LaAdrian Waddle then locked onto Watt and kept driving him away from Brady. Waddle controlled Watt, who was within arm’s length of disrupting the play, enough for Brady to connect with Danny Amendola for a 27-yard gain on third and 18. Left guard Joe Thuney controlled his defender to seal the middle of the pocket and prevent it from collapsing on Brady.
On the Cooks touchdown, Solder and Thuney double-teamed Mercilus. Clowney broke inside and Thuney appeared to disengage from his block in time to alter Clowney’s path and prevent a free run at Brady.
“We were just trying to give Tom some time, give him the ability to make some plays and I think we gave him enough time,” Waddle said. “With him making the throws he did and the receivers coming down with those tough catches, we just executed at that time the best we did all game. Luckily, it was at a clutch time and it helped us win.”
Waddle, a fifth-year veteran who played just one offensive snap in 2016, had never faced Watt in the regular season. The Patriots had joint practices with the Texans this summer, the first time Waddle had seen Watt.
There was hardly an indicator then that Waddle, a backup, would be needed in Week 3 with right tackle Marcus Cannon out with a concussion and ankle injury.
“It was nice to play out there,” Waddle said. “I just wanted to go out there and do the best I could. I didn’t really know until later in the week [I was going to start]. Around here, everybody prepares as if they’re going to play regardless.”
While many at Gillette Stadium Sunday were still buzzing about Brady’s winning touchdown toss to Cooks, the Patriots coaching staff was preparing for one last Texans push.
Deshaun Watson had been exceptional, looking less like a rattled rookie and more like seasoned pro, so there was no reason to think he would lie down with 23 seconds left and the ball at Houston’s 25. Part of the Patriots’ discussion was about the options to defend a Hail Mary.
After Watson’s 21-yard pass to DeAndre Hopkins, three seconds remained and the Texans’ only option was a desperation fling from their 46.
Bill Belichick explained Monday the process of defending the Hail Mary.
“Well, skipping the pass rush, you want to have somebody that’s in position to play the ball down the field so they can’t catch it,’’ said Belichick. “You want other players in position so that if the ball gets tipped, that they’re in position to rebound the tip. . . . With your players and their players jumping for the ball there is a good chance it’s not going to be a clean catch and then you have to be ready to handle the rebound.’’
That can be a slippery slope because with all the bodies crashing after the ball, pass interference always is a possibility and that would give the offense possession at the 1-yard line with time to run one play, even if the clock had hit zeroes.
“Doing all of that, knowing there’s going to be contact and the football is going to be contested, but you’ve got to play the ball and not the man, again, so you don’t end up with an interference call when you’re not playing the ball,” Belichick said.
The Patriots even deployed Gronkowski on the play as an extra big body to leap and bat down the pass. It was Duron Harmon, who has a knack for coming up with end zone picks, who grabbed the pass to seal the win.
Practice squad swap
The Patriots re-signed cornerback Jomal Wiltz to the practice squad Monday and released cornerback Robert Nelson. Wiltz originally signed with the Patriots Sept. 7 after being released by the Eagles. He was released by New England last week . . . Cooks caught five passes against the Texans for 131 yards and two touchdowns. Through three games, he’s caught 10 passes for 256 yards. His average of 25.6 yards per catch leads the NFL . . . Linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who has been out since injuring his right knee in Week 1, said he’s “feeling good” and “hopefully I’ll be out there” for Sunday’s game against the Panthers. Hightower spoke at a “Monday Night Football” watch event he hosted to raise money and awareness for the American Diabetes Association.
Jim McBride of the Globe staff contributed to this report.