FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots’ defense has often been described with the complimentary slang term “sick” this season, as it has consistently shut down — and taken the ball away from — opponents.
Now, unfortunately, the description has become a literal term.
Four of the club’s defensive starters were among eight players that missed Wednesday’s shorts-and-shells practice.
Linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins, cornerback Stephon Gilmore, and safety Patrick Chung — all key cogs to the Patriots’ second-ranked defense — sat out the session.
Additionally, cornerback Joejuan Williams and three offensive players — tackle Isaiah Wynn, guard Jermaine Eluemunor, and tight end Ryan Izzo — were held out.
There could be several contributing factors.
Players could be suffering from the same ailment that forced right tackle Marcus Cannon to miss last Friday’s practice. Cannon was able to gut through the win over Dallas despite battling an illness that left him ridiculously weak. He was on hand Wednesday.
Also, several Cowboys were battling the flu in the week leading up to the game, which was played in rainy, raw conditions.
They’re aren’t a ton of secrets between the Patriots and Texans, who will square off for the fifth straight season Sunday night.
Sprinkle in a pair of postseason games, a preseason contest, and a handful of joint practices in that same time frame, and these clubs have a pretty good feel for one another.
Houston, however, has had some significant changes, particularly on a defense that has perennially been one of the toughest in the league.
Up front, Christian Covington signed with the Cowboys, Jadeveon Clowney was traded to the Seahawks, and J.J. Watt suffered a season-ending pectoral injury Oct. 27.
Bill Belichick said the shuffling hasn’t really altered Houston’s scheme and pointed to defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel’s flexibility as a strength.
“Romeo is a game-plan coach, so he’ll do whatever he needs to do based on the team he’s playing and who he has available and what he can do with his players,’’ the Patriots coach said. “We’ve got to be ready for multiple things.
“Romeo is very sound, and what they do, they’ll do well, and they’ll make it hard on us or whoever they play.’’
Another strength of this 3-4 base defense is the linebacking corps, which has continued to hum along despite Clowney’s departure.
“Certainly [Benardrick] McKinney and [Zach] Cunningham are two outstanding players inside,” said Belichick, “and [Whitney] Mercilus, [ Brennan] Scarlett on the edge, those two guys do a really good job of playing the run, rushing the passer, pursue plays, chase plays. That’s one of the best groups in the league.’’
Additionally, Houston’s secondary has undergone several overhauls since the last time the clubs met Sept. 9, 2018.
Safeties Kareem Jackson (Broncos) and Tyrann Mathieu (Chiefs) moved on in the offseason, with Tashaun Gipson and Justin Reid filling in. Most recently, the Texans added corners Gareon Vernon (via trade) and Vernon Hargreaves.
Matthew Slater earned AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors after his blocked punt led to the only touchdown in the 13-9 win over the Cowboys. It was the first blocked punt of Slater’s 12-year career and it also was the first Player of the Week honor for the seven-time Pro Bowler. “I didn’t block that punt; it was great team execution,’’ said Slater, the unit’s captain. “So, very humbled, but just so thankful that the Lord is still allowing an old man like me to play this game.’’ Slater’s award came a week after punter Jake Bailey took home the same honor . . . Before wrapping up his meeting with reporters, Belichick was asked what he was thankful for. “The opportunity to coach the team, and the players and the staff that we have here,’’ he said. “The players work hard. We have a good group. The coaching staff is good; they make my job a lot easier. Just the opportunity to be a head coach in the National Football League for the New England Patriots.’’ . . . For the record, the coach doesn’t play favorites when it comes to Thanksgiving pies. “Oh man, whatever’s on the table,’’ he said. “I’ll take them all.’’
Jim McBride can be reached at email@example.com.