For the second straight week, the passing attack is the highlight of a Patriots victory. Tom Brady finished the game 25/35 for 378 yards and five touchdowns, including the 25-yard game winner to Brandin Cooks. Rob Gronkowski had a second straight big game, despite leaving with a groin injury in last week’s game against New Orleans. He finished the game with eight receptions for 89 yards and a touchdown. After a week one in which he and Brady looked disconnected, it is nice to see Gronk back as an integral part of the offense. With the absence of Edelman, a consistent and healthy Gronkowski is the only way that I see the Patriots hoisting their second straight Lombardi Trophy.
Brandin Cooks looked like the receiver the Patriots gave up a first round pick for. He led the team in receiving with five catches for 131 yards and two touchdowns. Not only was he making big plays, but he also created space for other receivers. Cooks was almost solely responsible for Chris Hogan’s two wide-open touchdowns, drawing the defenders away on both plays. Cooks also showed off his speed on a 42-yard touchdown and made an incredible toe-tap reception to win the game. Last week, I wrote that Brandin Cooks was a player to keep an eye on, given his performance in the first two weeks to go along with Brady’s history of having a hard time of integrating new wide receivers into the offense. If he continues to flash like this and draw away defenders on deeper routes, I was absolutely wrong.
This was the worst game that I have ever seen McCourty play as a safety. He was at least partially responsible for two touchdowns. On the first, Deshaun Watson fired a 29-yard touchdown to Bruce Ellington, who was left in single coverage with Jonathan Jones. On this play, the eyes of the rookie quarterback fooled McCourty. To be fair, Watson looked to star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who got safety help almost all game, on the fake. However, it looked like Gilmore was playing pretty good man-coverage on Hopkins and McCourty did not need to jump the gun like he did. On the second touchdown, McCourty simply got beat in single coverage by tight end Ryan Griffin, who has never been known for his playmaking capabilities. McCourty was symptomatic of issues that the entire Patriots secondary faced against Watson, who completed 22 of 33 passes for 301 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions (one came on an attempted hail-mary at the end of the game). Watson had success scrambling, and he was also able to simply drop back and beat the Patriots defense. Being a veteran leader and an established player, I expect McCourty to bounce back next week, but this secondary, which was projected to be one of the best in the league, has raised many questions with no answers through three weeks.
Through three weeks, the offensive line has been the biggest issue with the team. I cannot remember a year when the Patriots had a remarkably good offensive line. I can, however, remember years in which the Patriots have had a bad offensive line. Those years, like 2007 when Brady was sacked five times for 37 yards in the Super Bowl, never end well. Last week, I wrote that this game against Houston would be a good test for the offensive line. After allowing five sacks for 41 yards on Sunday, it is safe to say that they failed, and were the reason that the game was much closer than it should have been. The fact that the Texans only recorded five sacks is a product of Brady’s amazing play.
According to Greg Bedard of Boston Sports Journal, the Patriots offensive line allowed pressure on almost 50% of Brady’s drop-backs. Going up against a Texans defensive front with J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney is a tough task, especially when missing right tackle Marcus Cannon who was out with a concussion. However, the biggest issue on the line was not LaAdrian Waddle, who was filling in for the injured Cannon; it was Nate Solder. According to Bedard, Solder was responsible for three sacks on Brady, and did not even touch the pass-rusher on one of them. If the Patriots wish to have success against defensive teams like the Texans, the offensive line will have to do better to protect a 40-year-old Brady.
Things to Keep an Eye On
Third and One
So far this year, the Patriots are 1-5 on third and fourth down with one yard to go. Last season they were 19-26, boasting a success rate of 73.1%. Up to this point, the Patriots have only attempted a quarterback sneak with Brady once, a play that has been extremely successful in past years. This could be an effort by the Patriots to protect their 40-year-old star quarterback, but such inefficiencies in these short yardage situations may also be due to poor play from the offensive line. The Patriots currently rank 23rd in the league in rushing yards per attempt, which is likely a result of poor blocking. Third down efficiency is extremely important for this Patriots team, especially with the absence of Julian Edelman. They cannot afford to miss out on such short yardage opportunities, and the offensive line must do better to protect in these situations.
Next Week: Home vs. Carolina
This game should be a big opportunity for the defense to rebound after allowing 26 points to Houston. Cam Newton is not playing well, and the Panthers put up a mere 13 points against an abysmal Saints defense last week. After allowing Deshaun Watson to have a big game, it will be interesting to see how the Patriots defense plays against another mobile quarterback. The Patriots should generally not have any difficulty moving the ball against a Carolina defense which carried it to a 2015 Super Bowl appearance but has since lost its edge. The New England defense should have a field day against a sputtering Carolina offense.