On Sunday, the Houston Texans face the New England Patriots for the fourth time in three seasons in Foxboro, Massachusetts. In 2016, the Texans suffered a Thursday night disaster, falling to the Patriots 27-0, losing J.J. Watt in the process for the remainder of the 2016 season. In the 2016 AFC Divisional playoffs, the Texans defense gave the Patriots fits all night long and trailed by one score, with the ball, in the fourth quarter. Alas, an interception led to a Patriots touchdown and a 34-16 loss to the eventual World Champions. In 2017, the Texans had the Patriots on the ropes, only to lose on a last second, Tom Brady touchdown throw to Brandin Cooks on a sweltering day in Gillette Stadium.
That brings us to the opening game of the 2018 season and another trip to New England. Why so many trips there? This year, it's due to the conference rotational matchup every three years with the AFC East. For the past two seasons, the matchup was a result of both teams finishing first in their respective divisions. Each and every trip has been a bit different than the others, but this one will be even more so, given the changes on both teams' sidelines. As such, let's get to know the 2018 version of the New England Patriots.
Projected Patriots starting offense:
QB - Tom Brady
RB - JEREMY HILL/Rex Burkhead
WR - Phillip Dorsett (acquired early 2017)
WR - Chris Hogan
TE - Rob Gronkowski
LT - TRENT BROWN/LaAdrian Waddle
LG - Joe Thuney
C - David Andrews
RG - Shaq Mason
RT - MARCUS CANNON (injured for all of 2017)
**All Caps indicates a 2018 off-season addition
Other key offensive pieces:_
*_WR - CORDARRELLE PATTERSON
WR - AMARA DARBOH (claimed on waivers last week)
WR - CHAD HANSEN (claimed on waivers last week)
TE - Dwayne Allen
TE - Jacob Hollister
2018 1st round selection OT Isaiah Wynn is out for the season with an injury
*2018 1st round selection RB Sony Michel has missed the entire preseason with an injury - status unknown
*WR Julian Edelman is suspended for the first four games of the season and will miss this game
Keys to the Patriots offense:
-- The Brady Bunch
Good news doesn't come in bunches when facing the Patriots but there's a definite void in the receiving game for New England. Gone for this one are the following…
Julian Edelman - average targets 2013 - 2016 - 9.7 targets per game (missed all of 2017)
Brandin Cooks - 114 targets in 2017
Danny Amendola - 86 targets in 2017
Dion Lewis - 35 targets in 2017
Last season against the Texans, Cooks reeled in five passes for 131 yards and two touchdowns, including the game winner. Danny Amendola had the biggest catch of the game, a 27-yarder just prior to Cooks game winning touchdown. Yet, Cooks was traded to the LA Rams and Amendola chose to leave for Miami. Those weren't the only two to depart. Former Philadelphia Eagles receiver Jordan Matthews was signed in March and released in August. Former 4th rounder Malcolm Mitchell couldn't get healthy and was waived. 2018 1st round selection Sony Michel missed the entire preseason with an injury and his status is unclear for the opener.
Now, don't get it twisted, quarterback Tom Brady still has options, outstanding ones, honestly. Not to mention, they are two guys that have been thorns in the sides of the Texans for years. Receiver Chris Hogan had two touchdowns against the Texans last year and Rob Gronkowski remains the best tight end in the NFL. Add in the receiving skills of running backs James White and Rex Burkhead and Brady has plenty of ammunition in the passing game. The key for Brady and the Patriots offense is the progress of former first round underachievers Phillip Dorsett and Cordarrelle Patterson. Like Cooks, those two have game breaking, explosive abilities that will put the Texans secondary on notice.
But, trust is a big thing in Brady's world. The guys he relied heavily on in the past - Edelman, Amendola, in particular - are gone. Does that force him to rely on Hogan and Gronk even more than usual? Does he utilize his backs that much more in the passing game? You bet.
-- No Solder To Lean On
When former Patriots left tackle Nate Solder took a significant amount of money to join the New York Giants, the Patriots offensive line took a direct strike at an obvious key position. When Cameron Fleming also chose to leave New England, the offensive tackle position seemed to be in dire straits, so to speak. They drafted former Georgia star Isaiah Wynn in the 1st round to mitigate the loss of Solder and Fleming. Unfortunately, he tore his Achilles in game two of the preseason and is lost for the season. Three massive losses for this offensive line to say the least.
Marcus Cannon should return to his right tackle spot, one that he had on lock down prior to playing only seven games in 2017. Trent Brown stepped into the left tackle spot to replace Solder and impressed the coaching staff in preseason but he missed practice earlier this week. So, the edge protectors are a bit in flux; not to mention, even with Solder, they struggled with the Texans pass rush the past two meetings.
In the 2016 AFC Divisional round playoff game, the Texans exploited the inexperience of the Patriots interior, but that won't be the case with Joe Thuney, David Andrews and Shaq Mason solid in the middle of the Patriots' offensive line. However, the tackle situation should have the Patriots a little worried heading into week one with J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus on the horizon.
Projected Patriots starting defense:
DE - ADRIAN CLAYBORN
DT - DANNY SHELTON
DT - Malcom Brown
DE - Trey Flowers
LB - Kyle Van Noy
LB - Dont'a Hightower
CB - Eric Rowe
S - Patrick Chung
S - Devin McCourty
S - Duron Harmon
CB - Stephon Gilmore
**All Caps indicates a 2018 off-season addition
Other key defensive pieces:
NB - DUKE DAWSON (rookie - been injured throughout all preseason)
DE - Deatrich Wise
LB - Ja'Whaun Bentley (rookie)
LB - Elandon Roberts
CB - JASON McCOURTY
DT - Adam Butler
DE - DEREK RIVERS (missed all of 2017 rookie season with an injury)
Keys to the Patriots defense:
-- All Along the Hightower
The last three times the Texans have faced the Patriots in the regular season, Hightower was inactive, nursing a variety of injuries. The last time that Hightower played the Texans in the regular season was in 2013 when the Patriots beat the Texans 34-31 at NRG Stadium. Last year, in particular, the loss of Hightower had an impact on the Patriots defense as it struggled to slow down quarterback Deshaun Watson and the Texans offense.
Hightower does so much for that defense that he can impact the game in a multitude of ways and those type of versatile players are needed against this potentially explosive Texans offense. Whether it's playing the run, rushing the passer or dropping into passing lanes from his inside linebacker spot, it's imperative for the Patriots that Hightower be on the field for the opener. If he's there, the Texans must account for him on every play to help limit his impact on the game, tough, though, that may be to accomplish.