Monday, September 10, 2018

Patriots Top Texans, 27-20

It wasn't always pretty, but in the end, the Patriots prevailed Sunday, beating their long-time whipping boys, the Houston Texans, 27-20 in Foxboro. The win put them at the top of the AFC East, tied with the Dolphins (also 27-20 winners), with the Jets game still be to be played Monday night. Next up is a trip to Jacksonville to take on the Jaguars on Sunday.

This game reminded me of why some commentators say the first month of the season is similar to what the preseason used to be. Five turnovers, sloppy tackling, poor clock management (by the Texans), and a few whiffs by the Patriots offensive line. The lack of playing time in the preseason was obvious to anyone who watched even a quarter of the game. With luck, things will look better as the season progresses.


Pleasant Surprise: The biggest surprise on the Patriots offense was receiver Phillip Dorsett. He tied for the team lead with seven receptions, gaining 66 yards, and scoring his first touchdown with the Patriots. His routes were crisp and he caught every ball thrown his way.

Steady Eddie: Quarterback Tom Brady went a ho-hum 26 of 39 (67%), for 277 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 1 (tipped-ball) interception. His QB rating of 102.2 would have been exactly in the middle of last year's regular-season games (8 better, 8 worse), and he was solid if not spectacular.

Disappointment: I'll probably be the only one who says it, but it's tight end Rob Gronkowski. His numbers were great (7 catches, 123 yards, 1 touchdown). But his ball security on the Pats first drive of the second half was terrible, leading to an easy punch-out and fumble recovery by the Texans.

And to add injury to insult, running back Jeremy Hill was hurt (it looked bad) while trying to make the tackle after the fumble. The Patriots could have essentially ended the game if they scored on that drive. Instead, it was nip and tuck until the end; thanks in no small part to Gronk's mistake. Like I said earlier, looked a bit like the preseason out there.

Overall: The running game gained a decent 3.9 yards per carry, and ironically, most of the pressure on Brady came late in the second half when you'd think New England would run the ball to keep the clock moving. Those two things tell me the Pats offensive line is still a work-in-progress. Decent for the moment, but not great yet.

The running backs played well, led by Rex Burkhead (18 carries for 64 yards). And the coaches tried to take advantage of Cordarrelle Patterson's speed by running him on end-arounds and jet-sweeps. It worked pretty well; but it'll be more impressive when he catches a back-shoulder throw from Brady.


Pleasant Surprise: Cornerback Stephon Gilmore didn't disappoint, knocking down two passes and snagging an interception. But the surprising thing was he lead the team with eight tackles. He only made that many tackles in one game last year (Pittsburgh), and he averaged less than half that many per game (3.8) for the 2017 season. Nice to see him comfortable enough with the defense to help make tackles on outside runs.

Steady Eddie: Trey Flowers had another workpail day on the defensive line, 1.5 sacks (for 10.5 yards), 1 tackle for a loss, and three QB hits. Flowers isn't totally alone on the D-line, like he was last year, but he's still the only obvious difference-maker in that group. It appears Deatrich Wise might become a nice compliment to Flowers; but for now, Flowers is their most consistent performer along the front four.

Disappointment: Sharing this "honor" are linebacker Elandon Roberts and corner Eric Rowe. Roberts for not stepping up his game to match rookie Ja'Whaun Bentley. And Rowe for missing multiple assignments and not working hard enough to get through blocks and keep backs from running down the sideline.

Overall: The defense played well, forcing two turnovers from Texans QB Deshaun Watson. They were more aggressive, and the front seven appears to be the strength of the team (along with Gilmore at corner). They probably depended on too many dropped passes, but as the season goes along, they should become better.

Special Teams

Pleasant Surprise: Punter Ryan Allen's gorgeous punt in the fourth quarter pinned the Texans back at their one yard-line. He hasn't had many of those over the years, mostly aiming for inside the 10 yard line. Downing it was helpful, but the kudos go to Allen because gunner Jonathan Jones was uncovered by Houston so it was an easy jaunt down the sideline to grab the ball.

Steady Eddie: Special teams captain Matthew Slater was first to the returner at least twice and redirected two other return plays to other Patriots who made tackles. There's a reason he has made the Pro Bowl for special teams play a record seven times.

Disappointment: Return specialist Riley McCarron has to know that his only job with a fourth-quarter lead is to field the punt cleanly. He blew it, fumbling to give Houston a short field and an easy touchdown. That made the game much closer than it should have been.

Situationally, that play is even worse than Gronkowski's fumble. As Pete Carroll used to say: "Gotta clean it up!" Now take a lap, son...

Overall: Special teams were oddly ineffective in this game. The Patriots were really affected by the new kickoff rule, which states players other than the kicker can't line up more than one-yard off the line of scrimmage. This gives them less of a running start on those plays, and it showed. Houston's average starting position after receiving kickoffs was the 31 yard-line. Last season, Patriots opponents' average start was their own 19.

Might be time to put speedier players on the kickoff coverage squad. Or here's a thought; have Stephen Gostkowski boot it through the end zone, like the Texans did the entire game. That gives your opponent the ball at the 25 yard-line, instead of the 31. Just a suggestion.

So where does this leave us? Still learning on the job, I suspect. The offense looked good given that Julian Edelman won't play until week 4. The defense appears to be unmolded clay at this point, working to learn and communicate better and improve under new coordinator Brian Flores. Still, 1-0 is better than 0-1, so it's fine for now.

Biggest on-going issue: The second cornerback. I still don't see Eric Rowe improving enough to solidify that position, and unless there is a trade in the offing, reinforcements are not on the way.

Non-Brady MVP: Gilmore, locking down one side against the passing attack while the other side works to round into shape.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: At 7 hours 10 minutes, the Dolphins/Titans game was the longest in the NFL since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger. (Note: the weather delays helped with that.)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "A nice win to start the season, especially when your main AFC rivals, the Steelers, couldn't even beat the Browns. 2018 is off to a great start!"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-0!

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