The New England Patriots probably would have preferred an easier matchup for a rookie quarterback than the 2-0 Houston Texans.
Jacoby Brissett likely will start under center for the Patriots, and he’ll have to face disruptive Texans pass rushers J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus. It’s no surprise that one of the Patriots’ keys to victory is a strong performance from their offensive line.
OFFENSIVE LINE MUST JELL
The Patriots’ offensive line has had up-and-down moments in the first two weeks of the season. They’ve been better than expected — though still not great — in pass protection, allowing four sacks in two games, and shaky as run blockers.
When the Patriots’ offensive line is strong in the run game, LeGarrette Blount runs free. Unfortunately for New England, he has more runs for 2 yards or fewer (27) than he does of 3 yards or more (24). On the bright side, he has as many runs of 10 yards or more (six) as negative plays.
It all averages out to 3.8 yards per carry, which certainly could be improved by the offensive line with how well Blount is running.
Another key in this game is to go heavy on the run without wearing down Blount. However, that seems tough. Blount had 22 carries in Week 1 and 29 in Week 2, and he’ll be depended on heavily again in Week 3, which comes just four days after the Patriots’ 31-24 win over the Dolphins.
The Patriots can’t trust James White, Brandon Bolden or D.J. Foster to be used in the same way as Blount. They could call up Bishop Sankey off the practice squad, but that seems unlikely.
MALCOLM BUTLER MUST LOCK DOWN WILL FULLER
The Patriots did a great job of limiting DeAndre Hopkins last season as cornerback Logan Ryan tracked the talented Texans wide receiver with a safety almost always providing help over the top.
In order to have similar success against Hopkins this week, Malcolm Butler must lock down rookie standout Will Fuller, who has nine catches for 211 yards this season. Of Fuller’s 18 targets, 12 have been deep passes. Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler is 3 of 12 for 108 yards on deep targets. So, despite missing on nine of his deep passes to Fuller, he still averages 9 yards per attempt.
All of this is to say Butler needs to either jam Fuller at the line or stay stride for stride with him down the sideline. Butler has shown the ability to take on smaller, speedier receivers in the past, but he has struggled so far this season, allowing 11 receptions on 18 targets for 200 yards with a holding penalty.
Butler is considered one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks, so he should have no problem taking out a rookie. If he can’t, it’s time to worry.
MAKE J.J. WATT LOOK MORTAL
This one’s a little easier said than done, but the Patriots managed it last season, when Watt played with a club on his hand. He recorded only one pressure in 36 pass-rush snaps.
The Patriots blocked Watt 1-on-1 16 times in pass protection last season, double-teamed him on 15 snaps, triple-teamed him four times and left him unblocked once. Patriots right tackle Marcus Cannon blocked Watt 20 times in the passing game, taking him on 1-on-1 20 times.
Watt should be more effective in this matchup with the Patriots, as he won’t have a mitt over his hand. Expect a lot of double- and triple-teams to keep him at bay while the Patriots have a rookie under center.
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