Curran's Patriots-Texans preview

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Curran's Patriots-Texans preview

HOUSTON – The Patriots are staring down the barrel of a three-game losing streak. It would be their first skid like that since 2002. The reality is, this game in Houston may be tougher than the previous two. Against Denver, the Patriots still had Gronk and were going against a quarterback making his second start. Philly would have been meat if the Patriots hadn’t given them 21 points on mistakes and taken three off the board with the Brady pick-6. Teams don’t survive handing over 24 points. But Houston’s defense is the wrong group at the wrong time for the Patriots. The Texans sit at 6-6 after a 2-5 start that looked like it would lead to a full housecleaning. They lost to Buffalo last week, 30-21.

WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
What was previously so easy is now so hard. We told you earlier this week how the Patriots were at 51 percent third down conversions until Julian Edelman went down and now are 15 for 52 (28 percent) since. Tom Brady said earlier this week that it is also ineptitude on first and second down that’s leading to third-and-unmanageable. So that’s even less encouraging. Houston is best in the league on third down allowing just 28 percent conversions. Running a 3-4 with old friend Vince Wilfork in the middle, one-man carnival JJ Watt at defensive end, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus at outside linebackers and Brian Cushing at inside linebacker, the Texans are pretty stocked. They also have a good corner in Johnathan Joseph. The Patriots need to get some production on the ground to stay out of third-and-long. The simple lament is that LeGarrette Blount is not good. We’re not getting a chance to determine that because first contact is coming behind the line of scrimmage. There’s no push up front from the offensive line. Houston allowed 187 on the ground last week to the Bills. They hadn’t allowed more than 86 on the ground in their previous four games. It wouldn’t be so bad if the Patriots game were unreliable but the air attack worked. That’s not the case. Brandon LaFell is a physical receiver and has nice athletic ability. He just doesn’t have great feel for the nuances of option routes and being on the same mental page with Brady. Usually, that’s not a big deal. He has less on his plate and has specific routes on which he’s featured. Now that Brady wants to rely on LaFell it shows up more. Danny Amendola is gutting it out on a sore knee. He played great last week but he’s not going to be able to get customary separation at less than full strength. Still, he’ll be the third down chain-mover. Scott Chandler was better last week than against Denver and – although he still got handcuffed on a third-and-5 pass before the half that wound up being costly – I think he’ll have a solid game. KeShawn Martin saw eight balls go his way last week – a season high. I think he deserves more looks. Same with James White. He is not an electric back by any stretch but he keeps producing when the ball goes to him.

WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
As mightily as the Patriots offense could struggle in this one, Houston is probably in the same boat. The Texans have run the ball better in recent games with Alfred Blue and changeup back Chris Polk (173 yards between them in the past two games on 38 carries) but the Patriots have been a good run-stopping team for most of the season. The last six quarters they played without Donta Hightower have been concerning, though. New England needs to do a better job getting backs on the ground. The normally sure-tackling secondary players for the Patriots have not been as effective in run support and the Patriots got lit up by Darren Sproles and C.J. Anderson. The Texans most potent offensive weapon is the dynamic DeAndre Hopkins. He’s like Odell Beckham Jr., but bigger (5-11 to 6-2). Keep that in mind if Malcolm Butler draws Hopkins duty and is unable to undress DeAndre as he did Beckham. Nate Washington and Cecil Shorts are the other two targets for Brian Hoyer. They are not game-changers. The Patriots need to make it so that Hoyer is looking to those two to make things happen, not Hopkins. As for Hoyer, he’s accurate, tough and generally smart. He can be prone to taking some risks, though, and the Patriots need to make him pay. He’s also a great competitor and, this being an opportunity to play against a team that he’s got history with, could bring out the best in him. Beware the Hoyer. Houston doesn’t allow many sacks.

THE KICKING GAME
What has traditionally been a huge checkmark for the Patriots has cost them the last two games. The Chris Harper fumble in Denver opened the gate for that loss; the punt block against the Eagles was the jumpstart for Philly. So correctable. The Patriots play as they normally do on special teams and they are 12-0 even with the injuries. Be that as it may, Houston is a pedestrian fourth-down group. Shane Lechler is a big-legged punter but he’s got a penchant for outkicking his coverage, hence the 38.6 net punting average. The kicker is Nick Novak. He’s missed one attempt this season. This could be a game that comes down to field position and field goals. The Patriots should have the edge there.


PATRIOTS MEDICAL REPORT

OUT: WR Julian Edelman (foot); QUESTIONABLE: WR Danny Amendola (knee), TE Scott Chandler (knee), S Patrick Chung (foot), CB Justin Coleman (hand), TE Rob Gronkowski (knee), LB Donta Hightower (knee), OL Josh Kline (shoulder), WR Matt Slater (stinger). PROBABLE: OL Marcus Cannon (toe), DE Chandler Jones (abdomen), S Devin McCourty (shoulder), TE Michael Williams (knee)

TEXANS MEDICAL REPORT

PROBABLE: DE JJ Watt (groin/hand), WR DeAndre Hopkins (hamstring), RB Alfred Blue (back), G Brandon Brooks (illness/toe), T Duane Brown (knee), LB Max Bullough (shoulder), LB Jadeveon Clowney (hamstring), NT Christian Covington (knee), CB Kareem Jackson (ankle), CB Charles James (calf), C Ben Jones (hip), CB Johnathan Joseph (knee), LB Whitney Mercilus (back), T Derek Newton (elbow), RB Chris Polk (knee), WR Cecil Shorts (hamstring).

GAME WITHIN THE GAME

Keeping the heat off of Tom Brady. The sacks, hits and pressures are starting to add up, despite his claim that he’s “fresh as lettuce.” The diabolical combination of poor work in protection and an inability to get separation in the passing game has Brady holding the ball longer than he wants and taking punishment. The Texans can mete out punishment with the best of them. The Patriots need to get their ground game going and stay out of third-and-long as they were against the Eagles or there’s more punishment in store.


TEXANS GOTTA STOP
Danny Amendola. He’s such a tough, smart and quick player. Last week, there were two third-down catches that were remarkable and his touchdown route was incredible. Tom Brady is going to look to Amendola because he’s the one Brady trusts in pivotal situations. If the Texans are doing their job defensively, the number of third down looks Amendola gets will be real low.

PATRIOTS GOTTA STOP
DeAndre Hopkins. We could certainly say J.J. Watt and not be wrong. But so much of the Texans offense runs through Hopkins that, if New England can rub him out, Houston will be relegated to going elsewhere. And it’s pretty clear that Brian Hoyer would prefer not to do that. Expect Malcolm Butler to get primary Hopkins duty but also plenty of help.


THAT SUMS IT UP PATRIOTS STYLE
“Ideally you’d always like to get the ball out on time in the pass game. I think whether it’s some things we’ve done schematically or the opposing team has done schematically against us has forced us to hold the ball a little bit longer. I wish we would just be able to stay in rhythm. Every offense I’m sure would love that. Judging by the results I need to get the ball out quicker. I’ve just got to find an open guy and try to get it to the guys that can actually do something with it because usually when it’s in my hands there’s nothing good happening – aside from the catch last week. I think we’ve just got to get it to the guys who can do something with it – the skill guys – that can ultimately get the ball in the end zone.” – Tom Brady on the need to get rhythm back in the offense.

THAT SUMS IT UP TEXANS STYLE
“They’ll be hungry. Everybody wants to win. It’s the time of year that it’s big, you know what I mean, it’s December, a lot of teams want to win in December. They want to be good going into the playoffs. We are trying to fight to get into the playoffs. It’s a big game all-around. I don’t know if people will say it is a trap game or nothing like that, but both teams are hungry and want to win.” – Cecil Shorts, Texans wide receiver, on what he expects from the Patriots.


VEGAS SAYS
The Patriots are three-point favorites on the road and the total is 45. As 9.5-point favorites last week against Philly, the Patriots failed to cover. And, for the second game in a row, the total got blown away late as the two teams combined for 63 points. The total was 49.

THE WINNER IS...
Texans 19, Patriots 16

 

Will the Harris signing mean more time on the edge for Hightower?

Will the Harris signing mean more time on the edge for Hightower?

David Harris is expected to be a savvy middle linebacker who will line up his teammates when they help. He's expected to provide some level of leadership, even in his first year in New England, as an accomplished-but-hungry 33-year-old who has not yet reached a Super Bowl. 

What Harris is not expected to do is improve the Patriots pass rush. He was in on one sack in 900 snaps last season.  

But in a roundabout way he might. 

MORE: How does Derek Carr's new deal impact Jimmy Garoppolo?

There are dominos to fall now that Harris has been added to Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia's defense. How much will Harris play, and whose playing time will he cut into? Those questions don't yet have answers, but one of the more intriguing elements of the Harris acquisition is how he will benefit Dont'a Hightower's game.

If Harris can pick up the Patriots defense quickly -- and all indications are that there should be few issues there -- he could take some of the all-important communication responsibilities off of Hightower's shoulders. 

Ever since taking the reins from Jerod Mayo as the team's signal-caller, Hightower has had to be on top of all requisite pre-snap checks and last-second alignment changes. It's a critical role, and one that Hightower performs well, but those duties place some added stress on the player wearing the green dot. Perhaps if part of that load can be heaped onto Harris' plate, that might allow Hightower to feel as though he's been freed up to focus on his individual assignments.

Harris' presence might also impact where on the field Hightower is used. Hightower may be the most versatile piece on a Patriots defense loaded with them, but with Harris in the middle, Hightower could end up playing more on the edge, where he's proven he can make a major impact (see: Super Bowl LI).

For Belichick and his staff, having the ability to use one of their best pass-rushers -- and one of the most efficient rushers league-wide, per Pro Football Focus -- on the edge more frequently has to be an enticing byproduct of the move to sign Harris. Especially since there are some question marks among the team's end-of-the-line defenders behind Trey Flowers and Rob Ninkovich. 

We'll have to wait for training camp before we have an idea of how exactly Harris fits in with the Patriots defense. But the effect he'll have on his new teammates, and Hightower in particular, will be fascinating to track. 

How does Derek Carr's new deal impact Jimmy Garoppolo?

How does Derek Carr's new deal impact Jimmy Garoppolo?

Ever since Derek Carr signed a five-year, $125 million extension with the Raiders to give him the highest average annual contract value in league history, some version of the same question has been posed over and over again. 

What does this mean for other quarterbacks looking for new deals? 

Despite the fact that Carr's average annual value surpasses the previous high set by Andrew Luck ($24.6 million), and despite the fact that Carr's contract provides him the security that alluded him while he was on his rookie contract, his recent haul may not mean much for the likes of Matthew Stafford, Kirk Cousins and other top-end quarterbacks.

They were already expecting monster paydays down the road that would hit (or eclipse) the $25 million range, and Carr's record-setting contract may not even serve as a suitable baseline for them, as ESPN's Dan Graziano lays out.

So if Carr's contract did little more for upper-echelon quarterbacks than confirm for them where the market was already headed, then does it mean anything for someone like Jimmy Garoppolo? 

Carr and Garoppolo were both second-round picks in 2014, but from that point, they've obviously taken very different roads as pros. Carr started 47 consecutive games in his first three years and by last season he had established himself as one of the most valuable players in the league. Garoppolo, by comparison, has started two games. 

Both players still hold loads of promise, but unless Garoppolo sees substantial playing time in 2017 and then hits the open market, he won't approach Carr's deal when his rookie contract is up.  

ESPN's Mike Reiss projected that a fair deal for Garoppolo on the open market might fall between the $19 million that was guaranteed to Chicago's Mike Glennon and Carr's contract, which includes $40 million fully guaranteed and $70 million in total guarantees, per NFL Media.

Perhaps something in the range of what Brock Osweiler received from the Texans after Osweiler started seven games for the Broncos in 2015 would be considered fair: four years, with $37 million guaranteed. Because Osweiler (before his deal or since) never seemed as polished as Garoppolo was in his two games as a starter in 2016, and because the salary cap continues to soar, the argument could be made that Garoppolo deserves something even richer. 

Though Garoppolo is scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency following the 2017 season, there is a chance he doesn't get there quite that quickly. The Patriots could try to come to some kind of agreement with their backup quarterback on an extension that would keep him in New England, or they could place the franchise tag on him following the season. 

Either way, Garoppolo will get paid. But until he sees more time on the field, a deal that would pay him in the same range as his draft classmate will probably be out of reach.