The Houston Texans visit New England on Sunday for their third matchup against the Patriots in the last year.
They lost the previous two matchups — a Week 3 contest last September and a divisional round game in January — by a combined score of 61-16.
Both squads are 1-1, winning in Week 2 after falling in their season openers. But New England rattled off a resounding win in New Orleans while Houston struggled to a Thursday night win over Cincinnati.
Here are a few Texans storylines to keep an eye on for Sunday’s game:
Deshaun Watson’s second career NFL start will be at a venue in which the Texans have never won: Gillette Stadium. But the football résumé of the former Clemson signal caller and No. 12 overall draft pick is lined with him asserting himself in big games.
“Watson has a quiet confidence that helps keep him relaxed,’’ the Houston Chronicle’s John McClain wrote Monday. “Nothing appears to be too big for him — an impressive characteristic that came in handy when he played in back-to-back national championship games, including a victory over Alabama last season.’’
Coach Bill O’Brien asked his rookie how his nerves were before kickoff last week.
“He goes, ‘No, I don’t get nervous. And I see that,’’ O’Brien said Monday after practice. “So, I don’t really concern myself too much with that.’’
His performance in a game and a half of NFL ball has convinced O’Brien to give Watson “the bulk of the first-team reps’’ over Tom Savage, the third-year man who started Week 1.
“And I think, just based on that alone and his film study and learning from week to week, he’ll get better and better,’’ O’Brien said.
“He’s a quick study. He’s a quick learner. He’s going to make his share of mistakes, he’s going to see things that he’s never seen before, seeing them for the first time, and he’ll learn from it. I thought [Thursday] night he really learned during the game, and that was pretty good to see.’’
Through a game and a half, including his first start, which was a win on Thursday Night Football against the Cincinnati Bengals, Watson is 27-of-47 passing (a 57.4 completion percentage) for 227 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. He has also added seven carries for 83 yards, 49 of which came on a touchdown run against Cincinnati. His 68.3 rating ranks 24th among quarterbacks who have attempted at least 40 passes. Despite an up-and-down beginning, O’Brien said he and the offensive staff do not have to curb the play-calling for the rookie.
“I don’t feel any limitations,’’ O’Brien said. “He’s a different quarterback, so I think that it’s relative to what each guy can do, and with Deshaun, he can do some different things.
“Relative to what his skill set is and what he knows and what he can do, I don’t think there’s any limitations.’’
Watson acknowledged that it will take some time for him to fully develop, but expressed an eagerness to do so.
“I just want to be a complete professional quarterback, and that’s going to take time,’’ Watson said. “My reads, operation with the offense, timing with the receivers, routes, sitting in the pocket, trusting my line. Everything is always a work in progress.’’
The offense has scored just two touchdowns through two games: A pass from Watson to DeAndre Hopkins against the Jaguars and the 49-yard touchdown run by Watson against the Bengals. The unit ranks dead last in passing yards per game (104.0) and second to last in total yards per game (234.5). Of Watson’s 47 pass attempts, 24 have gone Hopkins’s way and 13 of those have been catches.
“This is our first time throwing this many balls since he’s been on this team,’’ Hopkins said after Thursday’s game. “So just getting that timing down, getting that chemistry and just building.’’
And while Watson and the offense iron out the wrinkles, defensive end J.J. Watt said the defense will need to hold up its end of the bargain.
“He’s not going to be perfect — he’s a rookie,’’ he told NFL Network after Thursday’s game. “There’s going to be tough times throughout the year, but that’s what the defense is for, to pull him out of it. If you’ve got to win a game 10-9 or 13-9 or whatever, you’ve got to do it.’’
The Patriots aren’t the only ones thin at wide receiver.
Beyond Hopkins, Braxton Miller is the only Texans receiver with a catch from Watson. (He has caught two passes from Watson for 10 yards.) Will Fuller (collarbone) returned to practice Monday. Fuller, the fastest player on the Texans roster, suffered the injury in training camp, but it’s not clear if he will be available for Sunday’s game.
“He had a mostly promising rookie season last year, but struggled with his hands at times,’’ the Chronicle’s Aaron Wilson wrote Monday. “Fuller dropped five passes during the regular season on 92 targets, finishing his first NFL season with 47 receptions for 635 yards and two touchdowns.’’
Although the Texans got back Fuller on Monday, they released Jaelen Strong and signed rookie Andy Jones to fill his roster spot. That leaves their receiver depth chart with this: Hopkins, Fuller, Jones, Miller, and Bruce Ellington, who is in concussion protocol.
The Texans’ secondary will have to adjust after an injury to one starting cornerback.
Cornerback Kevin Johnson is out four to six weeks after suffering an MCL sprain in the third quarter against the Bengals. And although fellow starter Johnathan Joseph left the same game in the second quarter with a shoulder injury, he is expected to play this Sunday after undergoing an MRI last week that revealed he “did not suffer a major injury,’’ according to a report.
“Definitely tough losing a guy like Kevin, being that he’s one of the major parts of our defense and in our secondary room,’’ Texans cornerback Kareem Jackson said.
Jackson, usually the slot corner, will step in for Johnson. He forced a fumble, led the team with seven tackles, and recorded a sack against the Bengals.
“I thought [Jackson] played one of the best games he’s had since I’ve been here,’’ O’Brien said after beating the Bengals. “He did a lot of different things, he blitzed off the edge, got a sack, caused a fumble, had several tackles.
“Just a very smart player, and he’s a very valuable player to our team because he can do so many different things, and he played really well.’’
Cornerback Marcus Burley, who has played nearly 23 percent of defensive snaps for the Texans after being brought in on Sept. 5, and safety Eddie Pleasant stepped in after Johnson and Joseph went down. Burley will likely be used again Sunday, and Pleasant could be moved again in a pinch.
“It’s different,’’ Pleasant said. “I messed around with it a little bit in practice. DB is DB. Run, cover and tackle is our motto. That’s what coach JB [John Butler] harps on. If you can run, cover and tackle, they should be able to put you anywhere on the field.’’
The Texans defense ranks sixth overall in yards per game (287.5) and passing yards per game (169.0) through two games. Opposing quarterbacks have a 80.1 rating against the Texans, but will face a Patriots’ offense that rolled up 555 yards and 447 through the air in Week 2.
“[Tom Brady is] arguably the best to ever play the position,’’ Jackson said. “He’s done some great things over his career, so any time we can see him, whether it’s preseason [or] practicing against them, it’s definitely going to bring out the best in us as a team. We’ll have to have a great week, and we have to be ready to go.’’
The offensive line has undergone a couple lineup changes through two games. It allowed 10 sacks against the Jaguars — and the term “Sacksonville’’ was coined — and gave up three more against the Bengals.
But after Jeff Allen, who started at right guard in Week 1, went down with an ankle injury against Jacksonville, Greg Mancz played in his stead, and will keep the starting job even after Allen is healthy, O’Brien said Monday. And before moving to right guard against the Jaguars, Mancz also filled in at left guard when Xavier Su’a-Filo was benched. Mancz started every game last season at center.
“Mancz did some good things in there and Mancz, more than likely, will continue to be the right guard,’’ O’Brien said.
As Mancz has plugged the leaky holes where needed, Kendall Lamm and Chris Clark have been alternating at left tackle. Lamm started Week 1, Clark started Week 2, and they were both benched for the other each time.
“You play this game long enough it’s going to happen to you,’’ Clark said after the loss to Jacksonville.
In addition to those lineup changes, veteran left tackle Duane Brown, a three-time Pro-Bowler, is still holding out, and is willing to hold out until the middle of the season, according to CBS Sports.
“Brown is seeking alterations to the two remaining years left on his contract and skipped the entire offseason and the first two weeks of the regular season,’’ Jason La Canfora wrote Sunday. “The Texans have been unwilling to renegotiate, noting their standing team policy on not negotiating contracts in-season, and there is no end-game in sight. Brown, 32, will report sometime after Houston’s Oct. 15 game, at the earliest, barring movement on the contract front.’’
“It’s always tough to play without any of our guys,’’ Clark said of Brown’s absence after Week 1. “It’s just one of those things. We’re accountable for each other. We’ve got to pull together.’’
The Texans brought in offensive lineman Jah Reid for a workout Friday and subsequently signed him. The former Raven and Chief started 16 of 81 career games over the last six seasons, logging time at left and right guard and left tackle.
“The main thing is learning the offense right now,’’ Reid said Monday.
“I’m happy to be here. Just professionalism, come in and do my job, learn the playbook and be ready when my name is called.’’
Despite the merry-go-round, Houston did see an uptick — marginal, at best — in ground game output. Against the Jaguars, Houston’s backs and Watson toted the ball 23 times for 93 (4.0 per carry) with a long run of 9 yards. The next week, the backs and their quarterback rushed 35 times for 168 (4.8 per carry) with a long run of 49 yards, which was a touchdown run by Watson.
■ Julie’n Davenport, a rookie offensive lineman, was used as a blocking tight end against the Bengals, his NFL starting debut.
■ Linebacker Brian Cushing was suspended 10 games for using performance-enhancing drugs.
■ Against the Bengals, Watt recorded six quarterback pressures on 36 pass-rush snaps.
■ Linebacker Benardrick McKinney has been showing off his pass-rushing skills.
■ The Texans have seen improvement from versatile running back Tyler Ervin, who can be utilized in the passing game.
■ The Houston defense is regaining its form just in time for Tom Brady and the Patriots.
■ The Texans continue to be hamstrung by Bill O’Brien and abysmal play by the offensive line.
■ NFL scouts weigh in on Texans rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson’s starting debut.
Correction: A previous version of this post stated Deshaun Watson was drafted fourth overall. He was drafted 12th overall.