7 Keys to Victory in New England Patriots' Week 3 Matchup
Going 0-2 is nearly a death sentence for an NFL team's playoff hopes. This is why it was important for the New England Patriots to get a win in Week 2. They did, and they did so in convincing fashion. However, it's too early to say all of New England's woes are in the rearview mirror.
The Patriots are still dealing with a plethora of injuries, both minor and major. The defense, which gave up more than 400 yards in Week 2, is still a work in progress. If the team cannot right itself, losses are going to come. There are no gimmes in the NFL, even for a team that was considered to be the overwhelming Super Bowl favorite coming into the season.
The Houston Texans await in Week 3. This is a team that took a rookie quarterback on a short week into Ohio and knocked off the Cincinnati Bengals. The last thing the Patriots can afford is to overlook Houston.
So what do the Patriots need to do to advance to 2-1 on the season? We're going to run down the keys to victory here.
Houston Texans at New England Patriots
When: Sunday, September 24 at 1 p.m. ET
Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts
National TV: CBS
Get Gillislee Going Early
The Patriots defense has been a disappointment so far in 2017, especially when compared to previous incarnations. Part of the problem is likely correctable, though. With new pieces like Stephon Gilmore, Deatrich Wise and Lawrence Guy, the defense is still trying to jell. As the season wears on, the defense should start playing like a more cohesive unit.
In the meantime, New England can limit the defense's exposure to big plays by keeping it off the field. Leaning on the run game would be a great way to do that. Unfortunately, the Patriots don't have a workhorse back they can lean on like they did with LeGarrette Blount last season.
Mike Gillislee could be that guy. With four rushing touchdowns already, he's played the part near the goal line. However, he's averaged just 57 yards per game and 3.5 yards per carry through Week 2.
Establishing the run and getting Gillislee involved early could accomplish two things. It could help the Patriots control the tempo of the game and extend lengthy drives. It could also help Gillislee get into a rhythm, which could pay off in the second half if the Patriots are trying to protect a lead.
Utilize Up-Tempo Offense
While the Patriots will want to dictate the tempo of the game—by utilizing long, extended drives—they should also focus on using an up-tempo offense. This is something Cincinnati didn't do, and it's possibly why Houston was able to escape with a victory.
The Texans want to win games by getting into a physical shoving match. They want to win ugly, as they did in Week 2. The Bengals did Houston a favor by trying to grind things out and play the Texans' style of ball.
New England should want to keep Houston on its toes by using the hurry-up offense and speeding up the game early. If the Texans fall behind, it will be up to rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson to try to play catch-up. That doesn't fall in line with Houston's game plan.
Utilizing the up-tempo offense could also help slow the Texans' vaunted pass rush. Hurry-up runs and quick-strike passes would prevent the Patriots linemen from having to hold blocks. Against Houston's collection of pass-rushers, this would be a boon.
Using the up-tempo offense would also help prevent the Texans from varying their defensive looks to some degree, again making things easier on New England's blockers.
Get Dwayne Allen Involved
You can bet that Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel is going to want to limit tight end Rob Gronkowski as much as possible. That's easier said than done, but it's a task that is made easier if Gronkowski is the only tight end Houston is concerned with.
This is why the Patriots need to get Dwayne Allen involved in the offensive game plan, preferably early on. Allen was acquired from the Indianapolis Colts, presumably to provide a complement to Gronkowski at tight end. However, he has yet to catch a pass.
Allen did see 46 offensive snaps against the New Orleans Saints in Week 2, the same number as Gronkowski. However, some of those snaps came after the 28-year-old was forced out of the game with a groin injury. He saw just one target.
If New England can establish Allen as a receiving threat against the Texans, it should help open things up for Gronkowski and make defensive planning harder on Houston. If, however, Allen is again an afterthought in the Patriots offense, Houston will be able to put more resources toward stopping the four-time Pro Bowler.
Clamp Down on the Run
The Patriots should want to force the Texans to beat them through the air. Watson is only making his second NFL start and still adapting to passing in the NFL. This means New England's first defensive priority should be shutting down the run.
The Bengals failed to do this in a big way in Week 2. The Texans rushed for a total of 168 yards while amassing just 98 passing yards. While many of those yards came from Watson himself, Cincinnati still allowed running backs Lamar Miller and D'Onta Foreman to combine for 101 yards rushing.
The Patriots should know they can be hurt by the run game. They surrendered 185 rushing yards to the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 1. New England couldn't afford to focus on the run in that game because, as he proved, Alex Smith is capable of beating the Patriots through the air.
Can Watson do the same? It's possible, but the Super Bowl champions need to make the rookie prove it. By clamping down on the run, that's exactly what they can do. This may require utilizing more traditional defensive looks or placing a safety in the box when in the big nickel package, but New England has to get the job done.
Double DeAndre Hopkins
The Patriots will want Watson to beat them with his arm. However, that doesn't mean they are going to make passing easy for him. Taking away his No. 1 option—a Belichick staple—needs to be part of the plan.
Watson's top target is wideout DeAndre Hopkins. Of the 125 passing yards Watson produced in Week 2, 73 came from Hopkins. He caught seven passes and was targeted even more than that. For some reason, Cincinnati refused to double Hopkins throughout the game.
New England should double Hopkins as often as possible. This will force Watson to look to other targets like Braxton Miller and tight end Ryan Griffin. Not to take anything away from those other guys, but if they are able to beat the Patriots, then they deserve to. New England cannot and should not let Houston's best downfield target beat them.
Doubling Hopkins will also force Watkins to work through more progressions, which can be a challenge for rookie quarterbacks.
Pressure Watson Early and Often
It would make life a lot easier for the Patriots defense if Watson makes rookie mistakes. He avoided costly ones against the Bengals, which is why he was able to get the victory. Simply expecting him to get rattled and make them, though, would be foolish.
"The thing about Deshaun is he doesn't get nervous," coach Bill O'Brien said, per John McClain of the Houston Chronicle.
The Patriots need to make Watson nervous by pressuring him. This is a challenge that is easier said than done because New England doesn't have one of the league's more dominating pass rushes. The team's 34 sacks ranked joint-16th in the NFL last season, and they are on pace for 32 sacks this term.
New England was only able to bring New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees down once in Week 2, even though he dropped back 45 times in the game.
New England should have an easier time pressuring Watson than they did against a veteran like Brees, though. There are plenty of exotic packages and blitz schemes defensive coordinator Matt Patricia can come up with that a rookie like Watson has probably never seen. If a couple of those can hit home early, similar looks could mess with him mentally later in the game.
Keep Watson in the Pocket
Pressuring Watson will be important, but the Patriots cannot afford to do so at the expense of keeping him in the pocket. If you watched Houston's game against Cincinnati, you already know the rookie made the game's biggest play by breaking contain and taking off down the field.
The game was tied at three points with just over a minute of the first half left. The Texans were facing 3rd-and-15. Watson dropped back to pass but couldn't find an open receiver. Instead of keeping Watson in the pocket and forcing him to throw the ball, the Bengals allowed him to step up into the pocket, break contain and sprint right through the line.
Watson ran through the entire Cincinnati defense and took it 49 yards for the score. This left Cincinnati with a seven-point deficit with 50 seconds of the second quarter remaining. Essentially, it changed the complexion of the game.
The Patriots probably don't have to worry about going into halftime in a 10-3 hole, but they should worry about allowing Watson to make big plays with his legs. Learning to read and dissect an NFL pass defense can be a process for a rookie quarterback. For a mobile quarterback, running is already second nature.