Five takeaways from the Patriots’ 27-20 season-opening victory, in which they overcame some uncharacteristic mistakes to topple the Texans:
Turnovers make it tougher
It ultimately ended as a one-score game, and the final statistics don’t show much disparity between the two sides – New England’s advantage in first downs was just 23-21, while it held an edge of 389-325 in yards gained from scrimmage – but that doesn’t reflect how much the Patriots outplayed their opponents over the course of the afternoon. On both sides of scrimmage, the Pats asserted themselves as the better team, marking a welcomed departure for a team that’s recently spent the initial weeks of the regular season suffering through growing pains or pulling early September wins out of the fire.
The problem Sunday was that the Pats made the task more difficult on themselves by not adequately protecting the ball. Tom Brady had a pass intercepted deep in his own territory after it was deflected by a defensive lineman. Rob Gronkowski fumbled for the first time in six years, spoiling a big gain that seemed to have the Pats marching toward a back-breaker early in the second half. Then Riley McCarron let a punt pop off his facemask, before failing to cover his muff, when a simple fair catch would’ve all but the game away late in the fourth quarter.
The interception gave the Texans their first three points, while the McCarron cough-up allowed Houston the seven it needed to scrape within a single score late. That was a total of 10 points that required them to gain a net of nine yards. In between those plays, the Texans managed only one offensive series that moved the ball more than 50 yards.
Presumably, things will get cleaner for a team that is annually among the NFL’s best at taking care of possession – and if Sunday becomes an aberration, it might at least be worth noting the team’s offseason undertakings as a potential culprit.
By all accounts, Pats training camp this season wasn’t especially physical, and with no joint practices there wasn’t much opportunity for taking contact, outside of the exhibition games. Gronkowski didn’t touch the ball during those preseason exhibitions, and neither did Rex Burkhead, who also fumbled Sunday after getting hit (although it was recovered). Meanwhile, the team let Danny Amendola walk and entered the season with no real choice except McCarron as a punt returner, particularly with Julian Edelman suspended and Cyrus Jones not making it out of camp. Thus, they were in a spot to clinch a victory and they were left with a first-year, fourth-string receiver to handle the pressurized chore.
Again, it should get better. And their early sloppiness didn’t kill the Pats like it has in other years. But it did make things a little too close for comfort late.
Defense was dynamic and dependable
Part of the reason the Pats were able to survive those three turnovers was the play of a defense that was at the very least markedly improved from the last time they faced DeShaun Watson’s Texans, and inspired confidence that the unit as a whole is capable of improving on last year’s haunting inconsistency.
There were no blatant breakdowns in coverage, with Stephon Gilmore making a back-line interception, and Eric Rowe and Jonathan Jones looking capable as the two other prominent cornerbacks. Communication appeared to be good, especially when Watson tried to escape outside or execute a run-pass option play.
But what stood out most of all might’ve been the work of the Patriots’ defensive line and linebackers, who were consistently able to get pressure on the quarterback and control the field from sideline to sideline.
The unit’s biggest sequence came late in the first quarter, after Brady was picked. The Texans tried throwing to the end zone, then Lawrence Guy joined Trey Flowers to stuff a run for no gain. And then on third down, Flowers and Deatrich Wise teamed up for a seven-yard sack, forcing Houston to settle for three points.
Flowers and Wise each added another sack independently and each hit the QB three times, while Adrian Clayborn got a couple licks on Watson in Patriots’ debut, and both Guy and Malcolm Brown were good pushing from the inside. At the next level, Dont’a Hightower’s return was noticeable, while Kyle Van Noy looked quick to the ball, and rookie JuWhaun Bentley marked his first NFL game by ranking second on the team with seven tackles (including one for a loss).
They made live tough on a Texans attack that can be tricky, and they did an excellent job of getting off the field, forcing a couple of turnovers while also thwarting nine of Houston’s 11 attempts on third down. They busted the visitors on fourth down once, as well, all with zero evidence that the transition to the new voice of de facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores created any issues in communication.
Sunday was a good start for him, and for his entire group.
Brady and Gronk, same as it ever was
For all the caterwauling and consternation that seemed to define this Patriots’ offseason right through its final days – in fact, the NFL Network reported Sunday morning that Gronkowski was practically traded this spring before he himself intervened to nix a deal – when the games began for real, Tom Brady was Tom Brady. And Rob Gronkowski was Rob Gronkowski.
Various reports have for the past eight-plus months depicted scenarios where neither particularly enjoyed the process of playing in Foxborough last season, but when it came time to put on the pads and play football both the quarterback and his star tight end were just as their fans have come to expect: Excellent.
Brady finished the first game of his 19th season 26 of 39 for 277 yards, with three touchdowns and the interception that was in part a result of an unfortunate deflection. He wasn’t perfect – but he looked far more like a reigning MVP than a 41-year-old, whether it was the beautiful threading to Gronkowski for his first score, effectively orchestrating things at the line, or buying time with his pocket presence for the completion to James Develin that gained a critical first down in the final minutes.
Gronkowski, meanwhile, was money when the Pats needed it. His touchdown came on a third and 12 play, and would become one of four third-down catches he made on the day. He finished with seven overall, picking up 123 yards, on eight targets. One of those grabs helped the Pats put big points on the board before the half, and another put them in position for the field goal that added padding late.
Forget everything else. When it comes to Brady and Gronkowski, until everything else impacts their play on the field it should be considered only a secondary concern. And, based on Sunday, that point hasn’t yet arrived.
Offensive line handled Houston
J.J. Watt woke up in the second half, seeming to take advantage of a rotational shift that brought LaAdrian Waddle in for Marcus Cannon at right tackle, and with that the Texans’ vaunted defensive line came to life a little bit. But, by and large, the Patriots’ offensive line did an impressive job against a star-studded front that should be one of the league’s best this season.
Watt was mostly held in check, while Whitney Mercilus and Jadaveon Clowney had just two tackles apiece. Both of the sacks on Brady came from nose tackle D.J. Reader, and other than those and Watts’ two second-half hits, the quarterback was clean the rest of the day despite dropping back 41 times.
On top of that, the Patriots were able to effectively run the ball, averaging four yards a clip (120 yards on 30 attempts) when removing Brady’s two-yard, fourth-down sneak from the equation. While much of the talk has focused on the Pats’ receiving core on the outside, the offensive line might’ve been the unit where New England’s offseason maneuvering was the most interesting, considering it traded for a left tackle in Trent Brown, let Nate Solder walk to New York, spent a first-round pick on now-injured guard Isaiah Wynn, and recently paid Shaq Mason a lot to play at right guard.
That thought process and the wizardry of position coach Dante Scarnecchia figured to be put to the test right away, with the Texans and Jaguars opposite the ball in the first two weeks. And if Sunday was indicative, concerns about the Patriots’ talent in those spots won’t be concerns for long.
In a span of 74-seconds late in the second quarter, the Patriots went 78 yards, and their lead went from 21-6. At the same time, Phillip Dorsett may have gone from a question mark for New England fans to a player they feel good about as a member of Brady’s receiving corps.
After a full year to immerse himself in the Pats attack, Dorsett opened his second season as a Patriot with seven catches for 66 yards – three of those grabs coming in succession as the offense marched toward paydirt just before halftime. The first came on second down from the 30, when Brady slung it out to Dorsett in the right flat, and not only did he make a defender miss but he got out of bounds after a gain of 12. Two plays later, he took care of 14 of the remaining 18 yards, and again stopped the clock, with a pitch-and-catch pickup that brought the ball to the Houston 4.
At that point it was first and goal, and Dorsett lined up to Brady’s left. Coming off the ball, he ran straight at his defender, drove him onto his heels, then broke sharply toward the left sideline, and Brady delivered a strike. Dorsett didn’t catch it cleanly, but he caught it, and landed with a touchdown.
What stood out particularly about that play, and that route, was that it looked to be straight out of the Amendola playbook. Out of the slot. Sharp cut. Working horizontally. Near the back of the end zone. And — maybe most interestingly of all – the attention and trust of the quarterback in go-to, game-turning spots.
At least until Edelman returns, the new No. 80 might be wearing No. 13.