5 players to watch in Sunday’s Patriots-Texans game

James White facing the Saints in 2017.
James White facing the Saints in Week 2. –AP Photo/Butch Dill

COMMENTARY

Bill Belichick and the Patriots welcome an old friend back to Gillette Stadium on Sunday, as former offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien and the Texans make the trip for an early test against the defending champions. The Patriots return home following a decisive win in New Orleans in Week 2, while the Texans also notched a victory after prevailing over the Bengals.

Houston will start rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson. Much has been made about Belichick’s past success against rookie quarterbacks coming to Foxborough:

Regardless, the Texans will pose a challenge for Tom Brady. J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and the rest Houston’s defensive front are as good as any in the NFL.

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Here are a few players to keep an eye on:

Kareem Jackson: As injury-stricken as the Patriots currently are at wide receiver, the Texans are having similar problems at cornerback. Houston’s top corner, Kevin Johnson, is out for an extended period of time with an MCL injury. Jonathan Joseph, another player the Texans count on at the position, is also battling an injury.

This leaves Jackson, the 29-year-old veteran cornerback, as a primary component of the Houston secondary. He excelled a week ago against the Bengals. Not only did Jackson notch his first career sack, but his hit on John Ross forced a fumble (which the Texans recovered). A natural heavy hitter, Jackson will be central in Houston’s defensive setup on Sunday. He only needs one more interception to set the Texans’ franchise record.

Tyler Ervin: In his second NFL season, Ervin has begun to grow into the Texans’ lineup. The speedy runner is both the kick and punt returner for Houston, and was described as an “explosive player” by Bill Belichick. On top of that, he’s had an increasing role in the offense. Not only is he second on the team in targets, but he’s also second in receptions.

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Ervin may not have too much success against the Patriots on special teams, given that New England is normally stout in that aspect of the game. As a receiver out of the backfield, however, he could pose a serious threat. In the opening two games, the Patriots have given up longer receptions to running backs. As a check-down option for rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson, Ervin might once again be an important tool in Houston’s offense.

James White: On the Patriots’ side, a pass-catching running back could also feature prominently for the upcoming matchup. White has tried his best to help offset the loss of the seemingly irreplaceable Julian Edelman, providing an underneath target for Tom Brady. He currently leads the team in receptions.

As he closes in on some receiving milestones, White will certainly be involved in the game plan against the Texans. Houston’s pass rush might force Brady to look for quicker options. If that’s the case, White will see the ball often.

Cameron Fleming: Marcus Cannon, the Patriots’ regular right tackle (and one the best linemen in football), is in the NFL’s concussion protocol and may not play. If that’s the case, Fleming will potentially replace him. The 25-year-old played in all 16 regular season games in 2016, but only started five.

Should he end up starting, Fleming will face a daunting matchup. The Texans line up J.J. Watt in various positions on the line, but he frequently ends up across from where Fleming might be. That potential matchup would be critical for both teams. Houston, with Watson at quarterback, likely wouldn’t win a high-scoring game. To secure a road win, the Texans need Watt – and the defense as a whole – to pressure Brady and limit New England’s offense.

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Trey Flowers: Still only 24, Flowers has become a very important piece of the Patriots’ defense in the last year. He is the team’s best pass rusher, and was a Super Bowl hero, with 2.5 sacks. He’s also taken on a leadership role, passing advice to rookies and staying after practice to keep working.

Against the Texans, Flowers will help shoulder the tough task of containing Watson. After the rookie scrambled 49 yards for a touchdown against the Bengals in Week 2, he officially showcased his ability as a mobile quarterback to the rest of the NFL. For Flowers (and the rest of the Patriots’ front seven), containing Watson will be a primary responsibility. In a more traditional sense, Flowers could notch a few sacks if New England’s secondary forces Watson to hold onto the ball for additional time.