By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
With a back-to-back wins and a potential season-defining upset in their pocket, the Patriots will look to keep things rolling Sunday against the Texans.
The Patriots resurgence has been keyed by some of the younger players on the roster. Two of those players have monumental opportunities in front of them against Houston, with a chance to play a big role in a win, and perhaps pick up some recognition in the national conversation. Who's stock has the biggest chance to rise?
Plus, the two NFL veterans in the game who will provide an entertaining matchup. Let's start though, on the Patriots' offensive side of the ball...
When New England has the ball: Michael Onwenu vs. J.J. Watt
Michael Onwenu has been the leader of the Patriots rookie class so far in 2020, and is arguably one of the best first-year players in football this season. He can really cement himself into that conversation on Sunday, when he faces one of the league’s elite defensive linemen.
Unlike most top pass rushers, J.J. Watt lines up on the left side of the defensive formation for Houston, opposite the right tackle. Last week’s starting lineup seemed to indicate Onwenu has won that job from Jermaine Eluemunor, so this should be the matchup this week.
Watt has been one of the game’s most dangerous edge rushers since he entered the NFL in 2011. But now in his 10th season, Bill Belichick has noticed a new edge to his game.
“I think honestly the experience that J.J. has is very valuable for him,” Belichick said on Friday. “Obviously, he has a lot of skill – he's long, he's strong, powerful, very quick – but his experience and anticipation is outstanding.”
How will the 2020 sixth-round pick counter? That will be a key question for the Patriots this week. Belichick broke down the matchup on Friday.
“Going up against a player who doesn't have as much [experience] as J.J. does and hasn't played against him, I think you really have to be mindful of the tricks that J.J. has up his sleeve,” Belichick said. “I know Mike’s studied him hard and will be ready to go, but until you actually face a guy J.J., it's hard to replicate him in practice or what it’s really going to be like during the game.”
If Onwenu can hold Watt at bay (he’ll likely have some help in the form of Ryan Izzo and/or running backs), the Texans’ biggest defensive weapon will be neutralized and the Patriots should be able to tear up Houston’s 32nd-ranked run defense. If not, it’ll be a much needed boost for the Texans’ struggling defensive unit.
One major thing Onwenu has on his side is history and the Patriot scheme. Belichick has historically had all the answers for the five-time All-Pro. In seven career games against the Patriots (regular and postseason), Watt has recorded just five tackles for a loss, and only half a sack. His Texans have lost all seven contests.
Can the Patriots and Onwenu hold him at bay again? Such a performance would likely give Onwenu the national attention he’s deserved so far this year.
When Houston has the ball: J.C. Jackson/Stephon Gilmore vs. Will Fuller
Not only does Houston have the worst rush defense in the NFL, their running game on offense isn’t particularly strong either. It doesn’t help that running back Duke Johnson and starting left tackle Laremy Tunsil spent the week dealing with a non-COVID illness.
That being said, if the Patriots can limit Houston’s offense through the air, they’ll be in good shape. Doing so means shutting down Will Fuller, who has emerged as the Texans’ most effective receiver following the trade of DeAndre Hopkins.
J.C. Jackson is already on a roll with interceptions in five straight games, and now has the added chip on his shoulder of the Pro Bowl fiasco. If he can continue his ascension to a true No. 1 on Sunday, the Patriots defense should have a dominant day.
However, if Stephon Gilmore is healthy and returns from a knee injury (which seems likely), he could draw the Fuller matchup for most of the game. But even if that is the case, expect Jackson to rotate in at times as the team eases Gilmore back into game shape. That’s something the Patriots have focused heavily on this year, with just about every player returning from injury.
The Patriots secondary, and in many ways the duo of Gilmore and Jackson specifically, have taken heat at times for taking a step back from where they were at last season. Sunday represents a great chance to remind everyone they’re still among the elite cornerback tandems in the game.
Bonus: Bill Belichick vs. Romeo Crennel
It’s rare to see a game where the opposing coaches both have 40-plus years of experience in the NFL. Add to that they’ve known each other for almost that entire time span - and won three Super Bowls together - and there’s an interesting storyline here.
Bill Belichick and Romeo Crennel first worked together in 1981, as special teams coaches for the New York Giants. They also had stops together as assistants in New England (1996) and with the Jets (1997-1999). Belichick hired Crennel as the Patriots’ defensive coordinator in 2001, a role he held on the Patriots first three Super Bowl teams.
“I’ve learned so much from him. He’s an excellent teacher, a great communicator, motivator, fundamental coach with a very good grasp of the big picture, as well as the finer details of pretty much every position and every little scheme,” Belichick said of Crennel earlier this week. “I’ve been very fortunate to work with a lot of great coaches in my career, but he would be at the very top of that list. I think the world of him and appreciate his friendship and have a tremendous amount of respect for what he’s accomplished in his career and great appreciation for all that he’s done to not only help me as a head coach, but when we were both assistants and we worked alongside each other, he was a great teammate and person that I learned probably a lot more from than I would have taught him. He’s a great man, a great coach.”
Crennel also spoke about their time together during his availability with New England media.
“Well, it was great [working with Belichick]. It was a great opportunity for me because I was a young college coach when I got in and Belichick was already there and he had a couple of years under his belt at a young age,” Crennel said. “He's coached most positions on the football field. I think all of those experiences helped make him the successful head coach he is.”
How will the chess match play out between two coaches who have decades of knowledge on their opponent? It should be fun to watch as the game goes on.
For more of a breakdown into these matchups and Sunday's Patriots-Texans game, check out the Patriots Preview Podcast below:
Alex Barth is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at [email protected].