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

 

Brady shows competitive attitude in Wednesday's joint practice

Brady shows competitive attitude in Wednesday's joint practice

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, West Virginia – Tom Brady’s legendary competitive streak was on display late in Wednesday’s joint practice with the Texans. Executing an end of the half drill, Brady hurried his team to the line of scrimmage and got the defense he wanted. Perhaps over-amped, he misfired on a mid-range out pattern near the Patriots sideline, throwing the ball just past the extended hands of Rob Gronkowski. Immediately, Brady’s hands went to his helmet, his shoulders slumped. 

“I mean we've got to make that play,” said Brady after the session. “It’s got to be a better throw. We've just got to come up with it. Sometimes you get the exact look you want versus a certain play and it’s not a productive play. Those are the ones that you kick yourself on. Then there’s some plays where they’ve got the right defense called versus what you have called and sometimes an incompletion – that’s what it is. Plays where it really should be a completion and a big gain, those are the ones you’ve got to come up with."

That Brady reacted like he did, on a mid-August day some three weeks from the season opener is just another reason why he is who is he. It also punctuated by far and away the most intense pair of days this training camp has seen, and the emotional Brady didn’t hold back, emoting at nearly every turn, directing those feelings to everyone: teammates, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Texan defenders and even members of the Houston coaching staff. 

“Yeah, I'm always pretty frustrated throughout the day in practices,” he said. “You’re just trying to create some urgency. I ask guys to dig a little deeper. It goes like that. Sometimes things don’t go great in the first quarter of games, sometimes they don’t go great in the first half, sometimes they don’t go great for the first three quarters, but you’ve got to keep grinding. You’ve got to keep digging deeper. A lot of times football is a lot about momentum. Things don’t go well early and then you find a little rhythm, start making some plays, scoring some points and then you can rattle off 28 points. That’s football.”

One doesn’t have to look too far back to find the Pats reeling off 28 off unanswered points. Super Bowl 51 ring a bell? In order to even get to that game, Brady and the Pats had to overcome the Texans in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, a closer than it appeared 18-point victory that saw Houston’s defense do something that few ever manage: they picked off Brady twice and held him to under 50% passing. Though Brady says last season is over and dead, that memory lingers.

“I think what you realize with this team is they're not going to make it easy on you,” he noted. “There is no easy play, there is no easy throw, there is no easy run. They’ve got good players, they’ve got a good scheme, so it’s really challenging and has forced us to raise our game.”

And if the Pats didn’t grasp that concept on their own this week, Brady made sure he brought it to their attention early and often.

La Russa, Crean appear as Belichick's guests at Patriots camp

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La Russa, Crean appear as Belichick's guests at Patriots camp

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, West Virginia – About 5 minutes prior to his media availability at the Greenbriar in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, Bill Belichick emerged from the gleaming white sports complex with his right-hand man Berj Najarian in tow.

Nothing unusual there. But what happened next was. The appearance of legendary manager Tony La Russa and former Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean.

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They followed Belichick to his press conference and quickly became the topic of conversation when I asked the Patriots head coach if he was picking their brains prior to the practice. Belichick lit up.

“Yeah, we brought in a couple of big righties from the bullpen that can really throw hard and close it,” he said with a smile and laugh.

Belichick would expand on his relationship with both men. He met La Russa through author/writer Buzz Bissinger, who just so happened to go to high school with Belichick. Thus began a beautiful friendship.

“I’ll never forget the time he let me get in the dugout with him for an exhibition game,” Belichick recalled. “Baseball -- it seems like just throw it and hit it but there's a lot more to it than that. I saw just how much there is on every single pitch and the focus, concentration, all of that. . .  Different sports but Tony is very progressive. He had a great career as a manager, won a couple thousand games. I can't imagine what that's like but it must be pretty good. We've talked a lot about coaching teams, coaching players, dealing with different situations. He's been in a lot of big games, a lot of championships, World Series, things like that, different organizations. He's helped me a lot and given me a lot of insight."

La Russa doesn’t see it that way, noting there was a big difference in the way the two interacted.

"All I know is that when we're together, I'm asking the questions, he's talking and I'm taking notes,” said the former Cardinals skipper. “He's not taking my notes.”

La Russa, who’s now an advisor with the Arizona Diamondbacks, marvels at Belichick’s consistency in building his team year in and year out.

“I believe his ability and his staff's ability, and his team's ability to start at zero every year -- refuse to think about last year -- is an important part of why they are so consistent,” he admired. “It's true in our sport, too, like what Bobby Cox did in Atlanta. It's easy to celebrate the next year. The ability to turn the clock to zero is really impressive and very hard."

As for Crean, letting him attend practice is a great show of trust by Belichick. Crean is, after all, married to a Harbaugh. Yes, as in John and Jim. In fact, Crean was due in Baltimore’s training camp in the coming days.

"I've had an opportunity to spend a lot of time with Tom, watched him at Indiana,” said Belichick. “Again, different sport but I learned a lot from his organization. We speak pretty frequently. Different motivations, teachings, [but] coaching is coaching, even though the sport is different. Players are players, and there are different things you can do to help them. He is a very progressive guy."

Crean’s personality is contagious. He could sell you the car you already own, and had a few reporters ready to ditch our current careers and go back to whatever college he ends up at next. He’s clearly thought a lot about what makes Belichick special, and wasn’t afraid to share his thoughts on the subject.

"Everything matters every day,” said Crean. “As simple as that sounds, it's very complex and hard because there are so many things that can distract that, can interrupt that, can get in the way of it. When I think of fundamentals, and preaching the fundamentals and details on a day-to-day basis -- and then watching it come out in his team -- that's one place you're going to look. He leaves nothing to chance. It would be hard to imagine something missing his radar or the people that are around him. . . He's been very, very good to me, very helpful. I think that's one of the reasons he's such a great leader, great developer of teams, programs, players. He's always inquisitive -- he's helpful. You can get an idea of how great he is with his team because of the way he helps his friends."

When asked if he ever taught Belichick anything - as the Pats coach said - Crean laughed and quickly dismissed the notion. Regardless, it’s clear that Belichick has never been shy about expanding his horizons - sports, business leaders, ex-players, current ones - all in the name of improving as a coach and - as important - improving his team. There’s no disputing it’s worked. Look at all those rings.