FOXBORO, Mass. — Bill Belichick waited until the time was right to push his New England Patriots to play 60 minutes.
For three days, Belichick focused his Patriots on their opponent — how to game plan for the Houston Texans, what to expect out of them, how to prepare for them. Then late in the week, Wednesday night and Thursday morning, Belichick sprung it on the Patriots that they had to improve the biggest issue they faced in their Week 2 win over the Miami Dolphins — finishing and continuing to play in the third and fourth quarter as they did in the first.
“Really this morning, just about how disciplined we needed to be to continue to play that way against the Texans for 60 minutes,” Belichick said after the Patriots’ 27-0 win over the Texans. “We talked about it in the locker room before the game. We talked about it at halftime and these guys did it. They never lost focus. They played the game exactly the way we asked them to play it.”
Last week, the Patriots’ defense let up 21 points in the second half against the Dolphins and nearly let Miami back into the game. Then they shut out the Texans and allowed just 284 net yards. The Texans made it over the 50-yard line just twice, and the Patriots won the turnover battle three to one.
“Every game’s a prove-it game, but I think we proved a lot,” cornerback Logan Ryan said Thursday night.
It’s been said all summer, but the Patriots’ defense has the talent to be elite this season. They’re stocked with top-tier players at every level of the defense, and their strongest unit top to bottom might be the secondary, which struggled against the Dolphins, allowing 387 passing yards. They weren’t going to let that to happen again, as they let up just 175 yards Thursday night.
“We took ownership of that as a secondary,” safety Duron Harmon said. “We gave up a lot of plays. Our communication wasn’t good. So, we wanted to use this game as a learning tool from last game. We did it, we came here, had a good game plan, executed it, everyone was flying around, playing with energy, and it was good. These are results we can get if everyone is locked in and just playing a team defense.”
Harmon was key in stopping the Texans’ biggest playmakers, wide receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller. Hopkins is one of the best wide receivers in the NFL, and Fuller, though only just a rookie, is one of the fastest. So the Patriots used two deep safeties — Harmon and Devin McCourty — to prevent big plays.
Ryan had perhaps the toughest role as he shadowed Hopkins. Ryan allowed four catches on six targets for 56 yards, and even he acknowledges there was nothing he could do about some of them.
“You smile and keep going,” Ryan said. “You can’t defend it. You can’t defend those any better sometimes. That’s what the great players do, and that’s what he’s able to do — make one-handed catches, drag toes and do all types of crazy stuff like that. I know if I stick with it, stick with the process, it will be in my favor then.”
Ryan certainly embraces the challenge.
“When I wake up and get that assignment, it just makes me — it’s why I get out of bed,” Ryan said. “It’s why I play the position for the big-time matchups in the big games. I think any big-time corner wants that. It’s a trust in my teammates to know that I’m confident in getting it done.”
Here’s how the rest of the Patriots’ defenders fared in coverage:
Logan Ryan: 4-7, 56 yards, PBU
Patrick Chung: 4-6, 40 yards
Jonathan Freeny: 2-3, 13 yards
Cyrus Jones: 1-2, 7 yards
Jamie Collins: 2-3, 6 yards, INT
Shea McClellin: 1-1, 6 yards
Devin McCourty: 1-1, 5 yards
Malcolm Butler: 0-4, PBU
Chris Long: 0-1, PBU
Trey Flowers: two PBUs
Thumbnail photo via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images