The Houston Texans pushed the New England Patriots to the brink last September, leading late in the fourth quarter at Gillette Stadium before ultimately falling 36-33.
The Patriots will welcome the Texans back to Foxboro, Mass., this Sunday afternoon in Week 1 of the 2018 NFL season.
Here are five things to know about the Texans ahead of that season-opening matchup:
1. They have one of the NFL’s most exciting young players behind center
Deshaun Watson, who came within three points of beating the Patriots at home in his second career start last season, is back after having his electrifying rookie campaign cut short by a torn ACL. Watson was the Offensive Rookie of the Year favorite before his injury, throwing for 1,699 yards and 19 touchdowns with eight interceptions in seven games while also posting 269 rushing yards and averaging 7.5 yards per carry.
Watson’s mobility created problems for the Patriots’ pass rushers, who pressured him 25 times in the teams’ last meeting, according to Pro Football Focus, but sacked him just twice. The Texans quarterback finished that game with 41 yards on eight carries to go along with 301 passing yards and two touchdown passes.
“He made a lot of guys miss a lot of times on the same play,” said Patriots defensive end Trey Flowers, who had a sack, two QB hits and three hurries against Watson. “He’s one of those dynamic quarterbacks that can make plays with his legs. We’ve got to make sure that doesn’t happen as much as we can.”
The 2017 Texans went 3-3 in games Watson started and 1-9 in games he didn’t.
2. Their front seven might be the league’s best when healthy
“When healthy” is an important qualifier there, especially as it applies to three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt.
Injuries derailed each of Watt’s last two seasons, limiting the superstar pass rusher to three games in 2016 and five games in 2017. He managed just 1 1/2 sacks over that span after racking up 20 1/2 in 2014 and 17 1/2 in 2015.
Now fully recovered from the broken leg that landed him on injured reserve last season, Watt played sparingly during the preseason, logging just nine total snaps and sitting out three of Houston’s four games. We’ll see if he’s at full speed in his first regular-season appearance since last October.
“We expect every player we play against to be at their best,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “We always expect their best performance. And we usually get that. That’s what we expect from J.J. J.J.’s a great player. He’s very talented. He’s got a great motor. He’s very instinctive. He’s a very smart player as well as one who has outstanding physical skill. We’ll always expect their best and prepare for it.”
“He’s pretty damn good,” Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia added. “He may not keep you up at night, but he keeps me up at night.”
Watt isn’t the only stud in Houston’s front seven, either. At linebacker, the Texans will trot out the formidable quartet of Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, Bernardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham.
Clowney is an athletic freak and two-time Pro Bowler who played all 16 games last season for the first time in his career. Mercilus, a second-team All-Pro in 2016, is eyeing a return to form after a torn pectoral muscle ended his 2017 campaign after five games. McKinney and Cunningham — second-round picks in 2015 and 2017, respectively — both eclipsed 90 tackles last season.
“It’s going to be a huge challenge for us,” Scarnecchia said.
Rounding out the defense, Houston added some new faces to its secondary, signing safety Tyrann Mathieu and cornerback Aaron Colvin and using a second-round draft pick on safety Justin Reid.
3. They revamped their offensive line…
Houston’s O-line was a disaster last season, surrendering a whopping 54 sacks. Only the Indianapolis Colts (56) allowed more. That unit underwent a makeover during the offseason and now features four new starters, including 2017 fourth-round draft pick Julie’n Davenport at left tackle.
4. … but brought back most of their offensive weapons
DeAndre Hopkins, who topped 1,200 receiving yards in three of the last four seasons despite catching passes from a cavalcade of mediocre QBs, still spearheads Houston’s receiving corps. Lamar Miller remains the Texans’ feature back, though he’s coming off a down season during which he averaged a career-low 3.7 yards per carry and managed just three rushing touchdowns.
The biggest change here is the presence of No. 2 receiver Will Fuller, who missed last year’s Patriots game with an injury. Seven of Fuller’s 28 receptions last season went for 20-plus yards, including 39-, 49- and 58-yard touchdowns.
One newcomer who could make an impact is Keke Coutee, a slot receiver the Texans drafted in the fourth round out of Texas Tech. Coutee’s status for Sunday remains unclear, as he missed most of training camp with a hamstring injury and didn’t play in the preseason.
5. The Patriots know them well
Including preseason and playoffs, the Patriots have faced the Texans five times over the past three seasons, more than any opponent outside the AFC East. The teams also practiced together last summer.
“I think it’s a little different because we’re playing Houston where both teams kind of know each other well,” safety Devin McCourty said. “We’ve played them over the last couple years almost like they’re in our division.”
A good portion of Houston’s coaching staff also has passed through New England, including head coach Bill O’Brien, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, special teams coordinator Brad Seely and offensive/special teams assistant Wes Welker.
That familiarity hasn’t helped the Texans, who have beaten the Patriots just once since their inception in 2002 and are 0-6 all-time at Gillette Stadium.
For more grades, advanced statistics and more at Pro Football Focus, go to ProFootballFocus.com.
Thumbnail photo via Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Images