By Bob Socci, 98.5 The Sports Hub
The NFL schedule makers first deemed a Patriots-Texans encounter fit for prime time in December 2012. Having won their previous engagement in the 2009 regular season finale, Houston showed up for the Monday Night meeting outfitted in made-to-order letterman’s jackets.
The Texans got undressed, 42-14, and have since worn the collar in the series.
Eight straight losses include a pair of postseason games, two head coaches and a succession of quarterbacks from Matt Schaub to Deshaun Watson. In between, counterparts to the incomparable Tom Brady and — for a Thursday in 2016 — Jacoby Brissett, were Case Keenum, Brian Hoyer and Brock Osweiler.
Keenum’s start in 2013 ended when Stephen Gostkowski’s last-second field goal lifted New England to a two-point win over Gary Kubiak’s Texans. By their next get-together, Bill O’Brien was Houston’s head coach and fellow former Patriot, Hoyer, its quarterback.
The following fall, Houston paid a ransom to Osweiler to be the franchise QB. He lasted one season, which was still long enough to lose two starts to the Pats. One was a 27-0 embarrassment opposite Brissett, a rookie making his first start. The other a 34-16 defeat in that season’s divisional playoffs.
Then along came Watson.
Easily the best of the nine quarterbacks — nine! — who’ve started under O’Brien since 2014, Watson was spectacular as a first-year visitor to Foxborough, where only a Brady-to-Brandin Cooks scoring strike and dubious clock management in the final minute fated his Texans to a 36-33 loss.
They fell again by a 27-20 final in the 2018 opener, when Watson appeared to be still recovering from reconstructive knee surgery only eight months earlier. Nevertheless, he rallied Houston from an 18-point, third-quarter deficit on the road to within a last-gasp incompletion from near midfield as the clock ran out.
Now Watson goes against the under-the-weather Patriots on his turf, under the retractable roof of NRG Stadium, where he’s averaged 334.3 passing yards with 10 TD and one interception in his last three games. That pick by the Colts’ Kenny Moore last Sunday was Watson’s first at home in more than 300 passes.
More than the setting, as the series shifts back to Houston after four straight games at Gillette, it’s the talent surrounding Watson and star receiver DeAndre Hopkins that makes this Texans offense potentially the most dangerous the Pats have defended against in a dozen all-time encounters.
A flurry of trades in the spring and summer landed left tackle Laremy Tunsil, running backs Duke Johnson and Carlos Hyde, and receiver Kenny Stills. Since 2015, the Pats’ James White is the lone NFL running back with more targets, receptions and receiving yards than Johnson. Hyde, who’s on his fourth team since the start of 2018, has rushed for 836 yards and 4.8 yards a carry. Stills’ career average of 15.9 yards per reception is second only to DeSean Jackson (17.4) since 2013.
In addition, well-traveled tight end Darren Fells was signed in free agency. His six touchdown receptions were tied with Baltimore’s Mark Andrews and Atlanta’s Austin Hooper for most among tight ends entering Week 13. And receiver Will Fuller, a first-round pick in 2016, returned from a hamstring injury to catch seven passes for 140 yards vs. Indianapolis in Week 12.
The presence of Fuller, who’s been absent from 18 games since the start of 2017 due to an assortment of injuries, gives Watson a third downfield threat to go with Hopkins and Stills. His 21 completions of 30-plus yards rank second to Kansas City (26). Against Atlanta alone in Week 5, Fuller had four receptions in excess of 30 yards.
Such deep threats also can lead to big plays off shorter throws.
“They get catch-and-run plays, separate the defense with those deep routes and that opens up space for Fells and Johnson and Watson to scramble,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick explains. “They create a lot of problems.”
Especially when Watson leaves the pocket, whether rushing north-south for yards or east-west to extend eventual passing plays.
“If somebody shoots inside of a blocker, he can escape to the outside, and once he escapes, he can run,” says safety Devin McCourty. “But, he can also take a couple steps up, see who commits to him and then drop the ball over your head.
“We saw that, I guess that was two years ago now when we played him. He had, I think, two or three plays where he scrambled, but then he threw the ball over our heads for big gains.”
Both by design and when Watson veers off script, defenders are forced to cover more ground, giving chase longer than usual.
It’s a conditioning test of sorts under any circumstances. Especially so this evening, considering the state of a Patriots team battling widespread illness, particularly on defense.
“There’s going to be some plays in the game where we’re going to have to cover for eight, 10 seconds, because [Watson’s] that good,” advises McCourty. “Like, it doesn’t matter. We’re going to rush him, we’re going to try to make it tough, but there’s going to be times he’s going to break a tackle of a guy that gets free to him and he’s going to buy time.
"He’s that good back there in the pocket. So, when that comes up, we’ve got to do a good job of just plastering our guys, getting on them, and just making sure they don’t just break free on a scramble and get a big play."
Three And Out
1. So, regarding that last point, if you’re O’Brien and offensive coordinator Tim Kelly, having learned of the presumed weakened state of the Pats this week, why not push the pace with a no-huddle attack? One imagines they will. Of course, one also expects Belichick to anticipate that possibility (probability?).
2. Only a few years ago, the Texans' special teams were a mess. In a Week 3 loss at New England in 2016, Houston lost fumbles on kickoff returns at its 22- and 21-yard lines. Those turnovers led to 14 points for the Pats. In their playoff rematch, the Texans’ kick cover unit surrendered Dion Lewis’ 98-yard return for a touchdown. Such miscues led O’Brien to bring aboard Brad Seely, who coordinated special teams for the Patriots from 1999-2008. An early mentor to the likes of Larry Izzo and Matthew Slater, Seely has made a difference — along with personnel additions — in Houston. On average, Texans’ opponents start after kickoffs from their 22.7 yard line (worst in the NFL). They also average just 2.7 yards per punt return (also last in the league).
3. Finally, a Saturday night date in Houston for Navy allowed an opportunity to see the now 9-2 Midshipmen rack up 56 points and 544 yards in a 56-41 victory over the Cougars. A couple of years ago, many wondered if Belichick’s well-known fondness for the Naval Academy and history of giving players from its program opportunities to make the Pats would lead to drafting triple-option quarterback Keenan Reynolds. Instead the Ravens chose Reynolds, who unsuccessfully attempted a conversion to receiver and returner. This spring another Naval Academy quarterback will be on NFL radars. And this one, Malcolm Perry, just might be better able to make a position switch if given the chance in the pros. A former slot back (runner/receiver) in the Mids’ offense, Perry has rushed for 100 yards or more nine times this year, including eight straight games.
You can hear Bob Socci on the call of the game on every game day for the New England Patriots, right here on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can also hear him on his own The Gridiron And Beyond podcast at 985TheSportsHub.com.