Outside of the dreadful AFC East, few teams have been victimized by the New England Patriots this century like the Houston Texans.
The Patriots are 8-1 all-time against the Texans, which began play as the 32nd NFL team in 2002. The Patriots' only loss to the Texans came in a Week 17 match-up in 2009 where Wes Welker tore his ACL in the first quarter.
Houston (1-1 this season) has been characterized throughout its history for having respectable, if not elite, defenses, but an average at best offense. Matt Schaub provided stability at quarterback for the Texans from 2007 through 2012, starting 80 of the 96 games Houston played. Since then, the Texans have had such an uninspiring hodgepodge of quarterbacks that could make even the Cleveland Browns feel better about themselves. In fact, Houston traded last year’s primary starter, Brock Osweiler, to Cleveland this off-season only for the Browns to cut him loose before he ever played a regular season snap.
Following a woeful outing by Tom Savage in the Texans’ season-opening loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, DeShaun Watson became the ninth player to start at quarterback for the Texans since Week One of the 2014 season – one more than Cleveland in the same time-frame. Watson was good enough to lead Houston to a 13-9 win over the hapless Cincinnati Bengals in his starting debut in Week Two, completing 15 of 24 passes for 125 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions.
Watson, the 12th overall pick in last April’s draft out of Clemson, also finished as the game’s leading rusher. He carried the ball five times for 67 yards, which included an eye-opening 49-yard touchdown run.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to look at him in a situation where it’s obviously a critical situation in the game from a clock standpoint, from an operation standpoint, trying to get into a position where they can score points,” Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said of Watson’s scamper. “It highlights his ability to make plays when things break down.”
Suffice to say, New England hasn’t faced Houston with a running threat like Watson under center. Schaub, for example, was a statue at quarterback. He averaged just 1.4 yards per rush with the Texans.
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“I think he’s a guy who gives them a different approach to the offense,” Patricia said of Watson. “He’s very calm. He’s a real smooth guy.”
Defensive end Deatrich Wise Jr., who has a sack in each of his first two games as a pro, will have the added onus this week of not just trying to bring down Watson behind the line of scrimmage, but making sure he stays there.
“Our job as a D-line is to contain the quarterback and not allow him to run down the field,” Wise said.
How exactly to classify a quarterback as mobile? Michael Vick set the gold standard for runners at quarterback; he’s the only QB in NFL history to average more than 7.0 yards per carry.
The Patriots barely faced Vick in his career, as he made only spot appearances against New England as a rookie in 2001 with the Atlanta Falcons and way later in 2014 as a backup with the New York Jets.
No one has ever been able to put together a career running the ball from under center quite like Vick, but any quarterback that can average more than 5 yards per carry is still doing something right. If nothing else, it demonstrates the need to at least respect their mobility as a passer – the mere idea they could run presents its own set of challenges.
This is in stark contrast to the quarterback the Patriots faced last week in Drew Brees, who hasn’t had a rushing attempt yet in 2017 and has averaged 1.3 yards per carry in his 12 years in New Orleans.
“Young quarterbacks do certain things,” defensive end Cassius Marsh said of the differences between last week’s opponent and the new task at hand. “Obviously Drew Brees is one of the elite quarterbacks in this league – not to say that DeShaun doesn’t have that potential, but right now we just have to go out there and execute the game plan.”
Since Patricia became defensive coordinator of the Patriots in 2012, the team has faced eight different quarterbacks a total of 18 times (including postseason) that have averaged at least 5.0 yards per carry (minimum 50 attempts) during said time-frame.
New England is 9-6 against said quarterbacks in the regular season and 3-0 in the postseason. Throw out Andrew Luck, who is 0-5 lifetime vs. New England, and the numbers shrink to 6-6 and 1-0 between the regular and postseasons for the Patriots against running threats.
Still, in very few instances did New England lose the game due to an inability to limit a quarterback from racking up rushing yards. Cam Newton is the only QB to amass 60 yards rushing (seven carries, 62 yards in a 24-20 Carolina Panthers win on Nov. 18, 2013) vs. a Patricia-led defense.
Respect for what guys like Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson are capable of on the ground is why they’ve had success against the Patriots throwing the ball. Wilson has rushed for just 62 yards in three career games vs. the Patriots (including Super Bowl XLIX) but has thrown for 888 yards. Wilson would very likely be 3-0 vs. New England if not for a certain play call by Pete Carroll.
Rodgers rushed for only 22 yards on five carries in his lone career start vs. the Patriots, but he threw for 368 yards in Green Bay’s 26-21 win on Nov. 30, 2014.
Bill Belichick said in his press conference on Wednesday morning that rather than zeroing in on Watson, specifically, the Patriots need to game plan for the entire Houston offense. But since the teams held joint practices together in West Virginia last month, he’s fully aware of Watson’s vast skill set and the dangers it could pose.
“I think he can make all of the throws he needs to make,” Belichick said of Watson. “Obviously, [he] can throw on the run, a really athletic guy.”
Watson will be making only the second start of his career on Sunday when the Texans come to Gillette Stadium. A rookie quarterback has never beaten Belichick’s Patriots in New England, but few rookie quarterbacks have the kind of big game experience already possessed by Watson. He played in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game back-to-back years with Clemson, winning it the second time over the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Could Belichick dial up long time confidant Nick Saban, who coached against Watson with Alabama, about the quarterback?
“I don’t know,” Belichick said.
If the Patriots want to avoid an 0-2 start at home for the first time since 2000 – Belichick’s first year in New England – limiting Watson’s legs will be a good place to start. But it certainly doesn’t end there, either; despite its uneven start, Houston still has the No. 9 overall defense in the NFL.
“Regardless of who we play, we just need to do some things better than how we’ve been doing them, so hopefully we can address that and improve it,” Belichick said.