Five takeaways from Patriots-Texans: All-purpose backs Burkhead, Lewis look sharp

Five takeaways from Patriots-Texans: All-purpose backs Burkhead, Lewis look sharp

HOUSTON -- We'll have plenty of analysis and reporting from the Patriots and Texans locker rooms later, but here are five quick-hit takeaways from Saturday's preseason matchup at NRG Stadium . . . 

1. ALL-PURPOSE BACKS COULD BE HEADACHES FOR OPPOSING DEFENSES

Rex Burkhead and Dion Lewis both looked quick on their feet and showed off their well-rounded games against Houston's defense. Burkhead finished with seven carries for 20 yards and caught three passes for 50 yards, including a 22-yard touchdown where he freed himself from linebacker Zach Cunningham with a nifty move over the middle of the field. Burkhead also showed up in pass protection. Lewis, meanwhile, had seven carries for 34 yards and caught one pass for nine yards. He also returned a kick for 29 yards, flashing his impressive burst and vision. Both players have value as between-the-tackle runners and receivers and seem to be ideal fits for the Patriots offense when they run their hurry-up. Should Josh McDaniels break out his "pony" formation, using both players in the backfield, it could be a nightmare for opposing defenses this year. Keep them in the backfield? Flex them out wide and hope to get linebackers on them in coverage? Their versatility gives the Patriots all kinds of options, and with Mike Gillislee still out injured, both had plenty of opportunities to play on Saturday. 

MORE: Gronkowski takes the field vs. Texans for first preseason action since 2012

2. GOSTKOWSKI ON THE MARK

Stephen Gostkowski hit all three field goals he attempted as well as all three of his extra-point attempts. He shanked a 56-yarder last week against the Jaguars, but he was on point against the Texans, making kicks of 51, 42 and 38 yards. 

3. ROBERTS CARTED OFF, FURTHER THINNING FRONT-SEVEN

The Patriots are already dealing with a number of injuries to their front-seven and they suffered another on Saturday. While in coverage of running back D'Onta Foreman on a slant, Elandon Roberts collided with teammate Jonathan Freeny and stayed down. He was eventually carted from the sideline area with what the team announced as a rib injury. Should Roberts miss significant time, the Patriots would be left with David Harris, Kyle Van Noy and Freeny as their primary off-the-ball 'backers. Shea McClellin and Dont'a Hightower (PUP) figure to play big roles when healthy, but they have not been available for some time. Second-year player out of Maine Trevor Bates and undrafted rookie out of BYU Harvey Langi have both been utilized as linebackers of late. 

4. GAROPPOLO TURNS IT OVER TWICE UNDER PRESSURE

Jimmy Garoppolo got plenty of work in preseason game No. 2, subbing in for Tom Brady after Brady saw 17 snaps. It was not the clean-and-tidy performance he put together against the Jags last week. He missed two throws on his first two drives, he was the victim of a strip-sack when Tony Washington charged completely unblocked into the Patriots backfield, and he was picked by Denzel Rice when he rolled out to his right and threw high on the run to Jacob Hollister. That play looked like the type of throw Garoppolo made more regularly in training camp earlier this summer when interceptions in practice were an issue. 

5. NO SIGN OF FLOWERS

It's worth keeping an eye on Trey Flowers' availability moving forward. He did not see any playing time on Saturday despite being the team's top defensive end. Perhaps it was simply a way for Bill Belichick and his staff to ensure they didn't lose another defensive end to injury. They're hurting at that spot with rookies Derek Rivers (knee) and Deatrich Wise (head) dealing with injuries. 

Bill Belichick issues statement following Patriots kneeling

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Bill Belichick issues statement following Patriots kneeling

Bill Belichick issued the following statement on Monday, a day after 16 Patriots took a knee in protest of racial inequality and Donald Trump's comments against the NFL:

“I have immense respect and admiration for our players, for how they conduct themselves professionally as New England Patriots and for how they represent themselves, their families and community as men.  I have coached football for over four decades and one of the greatest things about being in this environment is the diversity of people, backgrounds, viewpoints and relationships we are fortunate to experience.  As with any large group of people, there is a variety of perspectives and opinions on many topics.  Discussions occur between myself, individual players, groups and the entire team on an ongoing basis.  They concern the team and other issues surrounding the team.  I am going to keep the specifics of those conversations private.  I will do what I feel is best for the team in my role as head coach and collectively, we will work together to find the best way to proceed.” 
 

Tom Brady on pace to dwarf deep-ball passing numbers from 2016

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Tom Brady on pace to dwarf deep-ball passing numbers from 2016

FOXBORO -- When the Patriots traded their first-round pick in the 2017 draft for Brandin Cooks, they gave Tom Brady one of the most productive deep-ball receivers in the NFL over the course of the last few seasons. 

The Cooks acquisition not only made the Patriots offense more versatile, it also may have signaled an acknowledgement that the team needed more pass-catchers who could produce down the field and outside the numbers.

In the playoffs last season, against Houston's and Atlanta's defenses -- both of which were effective at times in taking away the short-to-intermediate areas of the field -- the Patriots could have benefited from someone like Cooks. In both games, the Patriots were able to hit on throws deep and on the outside in critical moments with likes of Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell. 

Now after three weeks, and after having faced two defenses in Houston's and Kansas City's that were intent on packing the middle of the field with defenders, it's clear that the move to grab Cooks is paying dividends. 

In Sunday's win over the Texans, 36-33, Brady threw eight passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air, and he completed five for 185 yards and three scores, according to Pro Football Focus. On the season, Brady leads the league with 22 attempts of 20 yards or more, per PFF. He's completed 11 of those for 368 yards and four touchdowns. His passer rating on deep attempts (135.4) is second in the league. 

Compare that to last season's totals for Brady on deep passes -- 23 completions for 834 yards and eight touchdowns -- and he's on pace to blow those numbers away. Whereas he only attempted deep passes on just over 11 percent of his throws last season, according to PFF, so far this year one in every five of his throws is traveling 20 yards or more.

The biggest beneficiary of the new approach? Cooks, of course, who Brady has dubbed "Cookie." 

PFF says Cooks is leading the league in deep-ball receiving through three weeks, with 187 yards on five deep catches. Three of those came on Sunday and they resulted in 111 yards and two scores. In Week 1, Cooks had three catches for 88 yards -- including a 54-yarder -- and he drew three penalties that resulted in an additional 38 yards. In Week 2, Cooks had two catches for 37 yards -- including a 22-yarder.

Last year? The leading receiver for the Patriots on passes that traveled 20 yards or more was Hogan (10 catches for 397 yards). 

One more indication that the Patriots offense has shifted with Cooks in and Edelman sidelined: Cooks leads the NFL in yards per catch through three games (25.6 yards per reception), while Danny Amendola (16.4 yards per reception, seventh) and Rob Gronkowski (14.9, 13th) are all found among the league leaders in that category.  

Opposing defenses may continue to play the Patriots as the Texans and Chiefs did this season: Flood the middle of the field and pressure Brady with just three or four linemen. They may be content with allowing Brady to attempt lower-percentage throws down the field as opposed to letting him slice them up with shorter tosses. 

It worked well enough for the Chiefs to win, and it nearly worked well enough for the Texans. Perhaps "the blueprint" is still the blueprint. But with the addition to Cooks, Brady and the Patriots have proven that they've evolved to more efficiently combat those schemes.

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