Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski missed OTAs, but they didn’t miss a beat in the opener
FOXBOROUGH — Instant analysis from the Patriots’ 27-20 victory over the Texans on Sunday:
■ Who needs OTAs? Tom Brady was sharp and efficient in his 2018 debut, throwing for 277 yards and three touchdowns and getting eight receivers involved. And Rob Gronkowski had his 27th career 100-yard game, catching seven passes for 123 yards and a highlight-reel touchdown in the first quarter. The Patriots’ offense wasn’t perfect, but looked as if it hasn’t skipped a beat from last season, despite Brady and Gronk staying away for most of the spring.
■ Brady looked fresh as lettuce, moving well in the pocket and avoiding the pass rush. The Texans’ vaunted pass rush managed two sacks and four QB hits in 39 drop-backs by Brady. J.J. Watt had two of the hits, both in the second half, but he didn’t look like himself for most of the day. Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus each had two tackles, no sacks, and no QB hits.
■ Two players who are going to be a big part of the offense this season — Phillip Dorsett and Rex Burkhead. Dorsett had seven catches for 66 yards and a touchdown, showing some nifty moves and showing why the Patriots were willing to trade away Brandin Cooks this offseason. And Burkhead was the lead running back, rushing 18 times for 64 yards and catching one pass for 5 yards. With Burkhead’s skill set as a receiver, the Patriots are going to find lots of ways to get him the ball.
■ From the “He Is Who We Thought He Is” department, Cordarrelle Patterson was used strictly as a gadget player. He had four touches: end-around, quick screen, end-around, end-around. He had 19 total yards on his four touches, and other than an occasional deep pass, expect the Patriots to use him like this moving forward.
■ Bill O’Brien probably wasn’t too thrilled about the officials’ inability to call for an instant replay review on Gronk’s 28-yard catch inside the final minute of the second quarter. O’Brien couldn’t challenge the call because it is an automatic official review inside two minutes, but the Patriots quick-snapped the ball and got away with one. That catch probably would have been overturned, and the Patriots may not have gotten a touchdown at the end of the first half, which made the score 21-6.
■ Tough break for new running back Jeremy Hill, who suffered a bad-looking knee injury after he was hit by teammate James Develin. Hill was running well in his limited action, rushing four times for 25 yards and adding a 6-yard reception. If Hill is lucky, he’ll only miss a few weeks. But the Patriots may be forced to call up Ralph Webb from the practice squad soon. They need to get first-round pick Sony Michel back, too, after he was made inactive.
■ Josh McDaniels didn’t look rusty, either. The Patriots attacked linebacker Zach Cunningham early, and when Brady slightly overthrew Burkhead on a deep pass to the end zone, the Patriots went right back at Cunningham, targeting him against Gronk. The result was a beautiful 21-yard touchdown.
■ But the Patriots are going to have to work on their third-down offense this week after converting just 4 of 14.
■ The offensive line had a solid performance, keeping Brady clean and helping the running game rush for 122 yards (though the 3.9-yard average could be better). But the interior line got beat up a bit — defensive tackle D.J. Reader had two sacks and three QB hits, and defensive tackle Angelo Blackson beat Shaq Mason and tipped a pass that resulted in an interception for Tyrann Mathieu.
■ The Patriots’ defense was solid for most of the game, holding the Texans to 20 points and just 2 of 11 on third down. The Patriots also sacked Deshaun Watson three times and didn’t let him break containment. He had just eight rushes for 40 yards, most of which came in garbage time. But it’s a little hard to know how much of it was the Patriots’ defense and how much was Watson not feeling 100 percent yet in his first game back from a torn ACL. He was also playing with a backup left tackle, and without talented receiver Will Fuller. Watson completed just 17 of 35 passes for 176 yards and didn’t look comfortable for much of the day.
■ But credit the Patriots’ pass rush, which looked 1,000 times better than it did in the Super Bowl in February. Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise each had 1.5 sacks, and the duo combined to hit Watson seven times. Second-year defensive end Keionta Davis also was a revelation, creating pressure on several plays and recording a QB hit. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, the Patriots pressured Watson on seven of his first 13 throws. Adrian Clayborn, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Malcom Brown, and Lawrence Guy also logged quarterback hits.
■ Bentley, the team’s fifth-round pick, showed some great wheels in the preseason, and kept it going on Sunday. He got the start at outside linebacker over Elandon Roberts and finished with seven tackles, a QB hit, and a tackle for loss. The Patriots are going to use him to cover tight ends and running backs a lot this season.
■ The Patriots’ run defense still needs some work, though. The Texans rushed for 167 yards with a 4.9-yard average.
■ Tough game for Riley McCarron, who fumbled away a punt in his NFL debut. The Patriots don’t really have another punt returner on the roster until Julian Edelman comes back (Patrick Chung can do it, too), so maybe McCarron gets another shot next week. But he’s got to hold onto the ball.