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Patriots, Brady must pass another test against Texans
A week after Tom Brady's New England Patriots (1-1) got back on course by taking advantage of a New Orleans Saints defense that ranked dead last against the pass a year ago and is well on its way to the same spot this fall, New England's offense faces a much tougher test on Sunday in against J.J. Watt and the Houston Texans (1-1).
Houston led the NFL in total defense last fall while fielding the No. 2 unit against the pass. Through two weeks this season the unit, now led by first-year defensive coordinator and former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel, has the No. 6 defense in football and the No. 2 group against the pass.
So while the Patriots took care of business with 36 points in New Orleans, it was more expected success than proving a point. This week, though, is a different story.
Although the final score doesn't show it, Houston gave Brady and Co. plenty of problems in the divisional playoff last January.
The Texans notched two interceptions and pressured Brady to the tune of two sacks and eight quarterback hits in a game that was just a 17-13 New England lead at halftime.
Houston couldn't overcome its Brock Osweiler-led offensive ineptitude, though, and a 24-16 Patriots lead in the fourth quarter ballooned to a 34-16 victory for the eventual Super Bowl champions.
But the inside pass rush that was such an issue for the New England line last winter an approach which could now include Watt as well as Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney put forth on center David Andrews and Co. of the Patriots and the Texans are far more of a potential measuring stick,
Does Houston, which has only three sacks in two games, have one of the more talented groups of pass rushers that the Patriots will face all year.
"Yeah, I'll say," coach Bill Belichick responded. "They're good. They can power rush, they can speed rush, good counters, they run games well, good technique players, they're well-coached. Mike (Vrabel) does enough things to keep you off-balance. I'm not looking out there and saying 'Well, we've never seen this before.' There's some three-man rush, there's some four-man rush, there's some five-man rush, there's a lot of straight rush, there's power rush, there's games, multiple games.
"You're never sure exactly which one of those things you're going to get. When you start mixing them together, you don't end up with the same thing repeatedly, so it's always something else different. A different type of rush, a different type of coverage, maybe players aligned in different positions, even though it might be the same players but just different matchups. They create a lot of problems."
New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels says the moving guys around the front and search for favorable matchups along the line is a major trend in the NFL in recent years.
Houston found success with it last January and it's part of what he and his offense will be preparing for this week.
"They've got a great front, " McDaniels said. "They've got a great defense; well-coached, very fundamentally sound, they can create a lot of matchup situations that they try to take advantage of and try to create some confusion with what they do defensively.
"They've got really good rushers, they blitz well, they've got good cover players, they make things hard on you and they don't give up big plays. So, that's the hallmark of a great defense, and that's what we have in front of us this week. It will be a big challenge for us."
Coming off his 447-yard, three-touchdown performance against the Saints, Brady knows things might not come quite so easily against a Houston team the Patriots faced twice last season and held joint practices with this summer at The Greenbrier in West Virginia before a preseason game barely a month ago.
"We've played them a bunch the last few years, practicing against them and kind of knowing their staff," Brady said. "They have a very tough, hard-nosed team. They have some incredible players, one of the best defenses in the league. They've been in the top five for the last three years. They're really good, really talented, they play hard, they're disciplined, they play with a lot of fundamentals (and) they're coaches do a great job of preparing them.
"It's a good test. We played them in the playoffs last year. It probably wasn't our best game. They gave us a lot of challenges and we're going to have to deal with them as best as we possibly can. It's a tough team to face."
SERIES HISTORY: 8th regular-season meeting. Patriots lead series, 6-1. New England has dominated this modern series, although the victories have not always come easily, including last January's postseason battle. Houston's defense gave Tom Brady fits, forcing two interceptions, in the New England 34-16 victory that was closer than the score would indicate. That came after the Patriots won in surprisingly lopsided fashion last September, when rookie Jacoby Brissett made his first NFL start and took advantage of two short fields thanks to Houston fumbles on kickoffs, leading to 14 points in a 27-0 victory. The only Texans victory in the series came in the 2009 season finale, 34-27 game.