After somehow only narrowly defeating the Miami Dolphins in Week Two by only a touchdown after being up by almost three at halftime, the Patriots welcome the undefeated Houston Texans to Gillette for a Thursday Night Football show-down. One of, if not the biggest story-line, going into Week Three is that Jimmy Garoppolo is officially ruled as a "doubtful" to play. With that, third round rookie quarterback Jacoby Brissett is in line to have his first ever career start in the NFL. Can the Texans, whose defense has only allowed 26 points so far this season, be able to take advantage of this situation? Or will the Patriots be able to somehow pull off another victory when they come in as underdogs?
The Patriots had to prepare for the regular season knowing the fact that the first four weeks would include Garoppolo starting at quarterback while Tom Brady was suspended. If that wasn't already hard enough, Garoppolo is now dealing with a painful shoulder injury that will likely keep him out against the Texans. Now the team must turn to rookie Jacoby Brissett at quarterback in what might be New England's toughest match-up yet. The Patriots were extremely conservative when Brissett was thrust into last weekend's game, throwing only nine times in the entire second half. He did complete six of them for 92 yards, but it was LeGarrette Blount's show. He ran the ball 29 times for 123 yards and a touchdown and might've been the reason why the team won against Miami. Blount kept the clock running and was gaining three to five yards at least on each rushing attempt.
Going into Thursday night, the Patriots offense may once again run through Blount to help control the clock and slowly but surely lead his team down the field. That would keep Brissett from throwing the ball unless absolutely necessary. It's not to say that Brissett won't throw the ball at all, but the team will likely try to control his reps in order to minimize his chances of being hit by the Texans fierce front seven. If he were to go down with any type of injury, it seems likely that the Patriots would have to rely on current number one wide receiver (and former Kent State quarterback) Julian Edelman under center. While it may be entertaining to see after he threw a 51 yard completion last year in the playoffs for a touchdown on a trick play, it would be far from ideal for the Patriots.
Speaking of the Texans front seven, it includes J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, John Simon, Benardrick McKinney, Whitney Mercilus and Vince Wilfork. This group is in large part responsible for the Texans defense success so far. Going up against a make-shift offensive line that includes Marcus "Turnstile" Cannon as their starting right tackle. This is a recipe for disaster for New England, but they have shown time and time again that they can adapt despite injuries. As we saw last season, the Patriots were dealing with offensive line issues and still managed to beat Houston 27-6. The Texans lead the NFL with nine sacks in the first two games and have a great opportunity to add more to that number.
The best plan of attack for the Patriots passing game is quick passes and screens. Two players to keep an eye on are Martellus Bennett and James White, as they could be Brissett's main targets on Thursday. These type of plays would make it so the ball would be out of Brissett's hands before he deals with much pressure by the Texans (for the most part). With White proving to be a threat in open space and Bennett showing his ability to move the chains and gain valuable yards after the reception, expect a majority of Bennett's targets towards both of them. Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan will be involved, but more likely on intermediate and deep pass plays along with being mostly decoys to open up the field.
Along with Garoppolo's injury, the team may be without Rob Gronkowski yet again as he is still fighting his way back from a hamstring injury. Not only does "Gronk" provide a much needed target in the passing game, he is also a very reliable blocker on run plays. If he does not suit up against the Texans, his absence will be a big loss for the team, as usual. Considering the Patriots are playing on a short week and Gronk wasn't able to play on Sunday, it is probably more likely than not that he is inactive again.
Moving over to the Patriots defense and their match-up against the challenging Texans offense, there are certainly some play-makers for Houston that can cause problems to opposing teams. While DeAndre Hopkins is one of the best wide receivers in the entire NFL, the Texans made some additions that are making noise as well. Rookie wide receiver Will Fuller currently has two 100+ yard games in his first two and is looking to extend that streak. Also, new running back Lamar Miller is making his mark as the team's new bell-cow running back following their release of Arian Foster, and is a threat in both the run and pass game. The Patriots struggled against a a similar back in David Johnson during Week One, so it'll be interesting to see how the Patriots defense can stack up against this trio of dangerous play-makers.
With the strong play from Alan Branch and Malcom Brown so far, the interior defensive line of the Patriots is not an easy area to attack for opposing teams. Along with that, Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard have both played at a very high level on the edge and provide constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks and consistently disrupting plays in the backfield. The Patriots also boast one of the best secondaries in the entire NFL with Logan Ryan, Malcolm Butler, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon and Devin McCourty. While they did give up 100+ yard games to both Jarvis Landry and DeVante Parker in Week Two, this unit will look to bounce back despite the tough competition they have in Hopkins and Fuller. In 2015, the Patriots were able to nearly shut down Hopkins, with him only gaining 52 yards on three receptions.
With another play-making wide receiver for new quarterback Brock Osweiler to throw to, the Texans have two legitimate threats at wide receiver. Thus, this could be the biggest challenge for the Patriots secondary to date. But the team has a good amount of depth in their secondary, so they use nickel defenses often. This would give New England an extra defensive back to play with, providing even more coverage against the duo of Hopkins and Fuller. It will still be a tough challenge for the Patriots secondary, but they are arguably the best team at planning accordingly on a weekly basis depending on who their opponent is. They were able to keep Hopkins at bay last season and have the ability to repeat that feat along with possibly slowing down rookie dynamo Fuller.
All in all, two strong all-around teams will face off on Thursday night in what could be a potential AFC Championship preview. With that, the Patriots having a third string quarterback in the game will make this match-up that much more interesting to watch and see who is able to come out on top.