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Houston Texans

Know Your Foe: New England Patriots

Oh, Week 3... again.

After last year's 2-0 start, the Texans went to New England, minus Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo, on a Thursday night and got it handed to them. Badly. Nothing went right that night and the fallout was gruesome. The offense lost a ton of confidence and the defense lost something even more important - J.J. Watt. That result and the lack of offensive firepower was why the Texans were 17-point underdogs heading to Gillette Stadium in last year's AFC divisional round playoff game.

Yet, in the fourth quarter, the Texans were down by a score with the ball... but we know how that turned out. The defense hung in as long as it could until the multitude of second half turnovers wreaked havoc on that unit, too. The Patriots went on to win a fifth crown and Tom Brady was as sensational as ever.

This offseason, the Patriots certainly didn't rest on their laurels, as they added, through trade, free agent signing, or return from injury:
Rob Gronkowski
Stephon Gilmore
Rex Burkhead
Brandin Cooks
Phillip Dorsett
David Harris
Mike Gillislee
...and a partridge in a pear tree.

The Texans tangled with the Patriots up at the Greenbrier and that work was invaluable for this Texans squad. Yet, those two teams have made significant changes due to injury or coach's decision since that time in August. The Patriots got knocked off at home in week one by an explosive Kansas City Chiefs squad, but got back on the horse, so to speak, scoring 36 in relatively easy fashion in a win down in New Orleans. As such, the Patriots will go into this one as a definitive favorite, yet again.

Let's get to know the New England Patriots, 2017 version.

2017 Team Profile - (1-1)
L, Kansas City 42-27
W, New Orleans 36-20

Rush offense - 121.5 ypg (10th in the NFL
Passing offense - 341.5 ypg (1st)
Total offense - 463.0 ypg (1st)
Scoring - 31.5 ppg (5th)
3rd down percentage conversion - 40.7% (13th)
Giveaways - None - (Tied for 1st)

2016 Team Profile
Rush offense - 117.0 ypg (7th in the league)
Passing offense - 269.2 ypg (4th)
Total offense - 386.2 ypg (4th)
Scoring - 27.6 ppg (3rd)
3rd down percentage conversion - 45.8% (4th)
Giveaways - 11 - 2 INT, 9 Fumbles (1st)

This was the starting lineup the Patriots used in the AFC divisional round playoff game against the Texans at Gillette Stadium:

WR - Chris Hogan
TE - Martellus Bennett
LT - Nate Solder
LG - Joe Thuney
C - David Andrews
RG - Shaq Mason
RT - Marcus Cannon
WR - Julian Edelman
WR - MIchael Floyd
QB - Tom Brady
RB - Michael Floyd

This is the projected starting lineup for Sunday's matchup with the defending champion Patriots:

WR - Chris Hogan
LT - Nate Solder
LG - Joe Thuney
C - David Andrews
RG - Shaq Mason
RT - Marcus Cannon
QB - Tom Brady
FB - James Develin
RB - Dion Lewis/REX BURKHEAD/James White

**ALL CAPS indicate a new projected starter in 2017

Key offensive non-starters:

WR - Danny Amendola
RB - James White
RB - Rex Burkhead
RB - Mike Gillislee

Most significant PATRIOTS offensive addition in the offseason:
This question is not easy to answer after Bill Belichick went on a shopping spree this offseason. He added the following: Brandin Cooks, Dwayne Allen, Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee. And, oh by the way, the Patriots also added back the best tight end in the game, Rob Gronkowski. So, which is the most significant addition? It's more than likely Gronk, but each of the four NEW Patriots has an opportunity to make an impact at some point during the 2017 season and beyond.

The Burkhead signing was the one I didn't see coming and it's the one that still scares me the most, honestly. He caught a touchdown pass against the Texans in the preseason game and then had another one vs. the Saints in New Orleans. He's scary good out in space, but he's certainly not alone (James White and Dion Lewis).

What's the biggest concern for the TEXANS defense facing the NEW ENGLAND offense?
Uh, TB12? That big enough? Without Brady, this offense would still pile up yards and points, but with him, it can have a rough night and still score 34 points. It scored 27 in the opener and really was stifled for much of the game.

The running back depth chart is perhaps as good as any that Brady's dealt with in his time in New England. This group is dan-ger-ous: Lewis, White, Burkhead and Gillislee. All four have made significant contributions through the first two games. Gillislee has replaced LeGarrette Blount as the team's go-to goal line and four minute running back. White leads the team in receptions. Burkhead is dangerous as a receiver, in particular. White had three touchdowns against the Texans in the playoff game, in three different ways (reception, rush and kickoff return).

What's the biggest concern for the PATRIOTS offense facing the HOUSTON defense?
The past two non-Thursday night games, the Texans pass rush came at Brady from a plethora of different angles and beat him up. After last year's playoff game, he seemed downtrodden even in winning the game because of the beating he took and the fact that he threw as many INT to the Texans as he'd thrown all year. He has not thrown an interception in 2017 and that's been a key to leading the league in scoring through the first two weeks.

The Texans found success throughout the night from a lot of different players, schemes and positions. To have ANY chance of stopping this Patriots juggernaut, Mike Vrabel's crew is going to have go above and beyond what they did in last year's playoff game. Having a relatively healthy J.J. Watt back should help too, but you know as well as I that the Patriots coaching staff will aim to take away 99 and force someone else to beat them. Those guys DID that last year and will have to replicate that again on Sunday.

Rush defense - 133.0 ypg (27th in the NFL)
Passing defense - 350.0 ypg (31st)
Total defense - 483.0 ypg (31st)
Scoring - 31.0 ppg (29th)
3rd down percentage conversion allowed - 34.8% (Tied for 10th)
Takeaways - 1 fumble recovery - (Tied for 23rd)

2016 Team Profile
Rush defense - 88.6 ypg (4th in the league)
Passing defense - 237.9 ypg (12th)
Total defense - 326.4 ypg (8th)
Scoring allowed - 15.6 ppg (1st)
3rd down percentage conversion allowed - 36.9% (7th best)
Takeaways - 23 - 13 INT, 10 recoveries (14th)

This was the starting defensive lineup when the Patriots played the Texans in last year's AFC divisional round playoff game at Gillette Stadium:

DE - Alan Branch
NT - Malcom Brown
DE - Trey Flowers
LB - Dont'a Hightower
LB - Rob Ninkovich
LB - Elandon Roberts
CB - Malcolm Butler
CB - Logan Ryan
S - Devin McCourty
S - Patrick Chung
S - Duron Harmon

This is the projected starting lineup for the Patriots in 2017:

DT - Alan Branch
DT - Malcom Brown
DE - Trey Flowers
MLB - Dont'a Hightower
CB - Malcolm Butler
S - Devin McCourty
S - Patrick Chung

**ALL CAPS indicate a new projected starter in 2017

Key defensive non-starters:

ILB - Elandon Roberts
S - Duron Harmon
CB - Eric Rowe
DE - Deatrich Wise Jr. (rookie)
DT/DE - Adam Butler (rookie)
OLB - Cassius Marsh

Most significant PATRIOTS defensive addition in the offseason:
Stephon Gilmore is seemingly better than Logan Ryan, so the Patriots can disguise the help in the secondary. In past years, nearly everyone knew that Ryan was going to get safety help while Butler was often 1-on-1. That's how the Patriots accounted for DeAndre Hopkins - Ryan with safety help. Malcolm Butler then covered the No. 2 receiver man-to-man. This year, though, Gilmore can handle his business 1-on-1 a bit better than Ryan could; however, the secondary has struggled, as Alex Smith (Chiefs) and Drew Brees (Saints) combined for 700 yards passing in two games.

What's the biggest concern for the PATRIOTS defense facing the HOUSTON offense?
Ask Bill Belichick and he's going to say "10." That would be DeAndre Hopkins. When he was mic'd up last year, he talked often during the game about jamming/slowing No. 10. The way to open up Hopkins is getting production from the other side of the field, backs out of the backfield and/or a stout running game that demands safety attention.

The other aspect for the Patriots is the running ability of rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson. Sure, rookie quarterbacks haven't had much success up at Gillette Stadium (then again, name any quarterback that's had success up there?) and Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will show Watson looks he's never seen before, but Watson can make things happen off schedule, which puts the Patriots linebackers and safeties, in particular, on notice.

What's the biggest concern for the TEXANS offense facing this NEW ENGLAND defense?
I said last year that the Patriots defense was truly a "whole is greater than the sum of its parts" type of defense. But, this group was first in scoring defense, fourth in rush defense and eighth overall. I bet if I had asked you what the numbers would be for the defense without looking, you'd have guessed top 15, perhaps.

This year, though, it's not started off that way. No Jabaal Sheard. No Jamie Collins. No Rob Ninkovich. It hasn't clicked yet for this defense but that can change quickly with this coaching staff and veteran core of players, especially as it game plans to stop an offense led by a rookie starting for only the second time in the NFL.

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