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An inside look at the Texans Week 1 opponent: The New England Patriots

An inside look at the Texans Week 1 opponent: The New England Patriots
Tom Brady has owned the Texans. Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

The Texans are 1-9 all-time against the Patriots and have never won on the road. Last year was the Deshaun Watson coming out party. Watson passed for 301 yards and two touchdowns while also adding another 41 yards on the ground. The Texans take their most talented defense ever to Foxboro and have the most dynamic pass-catching group in team history on offense. As almost a touchdown underdog the Texans try to open the season 1-0. 

Each week we will get the opponent's perspective on the game from someone who covers the Texans opponent. This week we visit with Michael Hurley, who covers the Patriots for WBZ in Boston. You can follow Hurley at @michaelFhurley on Twitter. 

I wanted to revisit last year a little, check in on both team's offense, and see what we should know about the Patriots we didn't already know. 

Cody Stoots: Do you feel like the Texans blew it last year or the Patriots won it?

Michael Hurley: [Some] of both. Foxboro is a tough place to play, and I’ve seen it time after time after time where the visitor has a win in its grasp but just can’t quite finish. I think certainly the defense had an incredible day (five sacks plus a touchdown) but unfortunately for them, Brady had perhaps his best afternoon ever.

CS: Will Deshaun Watson be better or worse than last year against the Patriots?

MH: I hope he’s better. The league needs some great, young quarterbacks to rise up, so I’ll be hoping that Watson is one of the rare QBs who steadily improves instead of falling back to the pack. I loved his game last year in New England, specifically the touchdown pass to (Bruce) Ellington. The CBS replay angle was perfect, as it showed Watson casually look to his left to get Devin McCourty to drift a few steps in that direction. It opened up just enough space for a window to Ellington (though he was covered pretty tightly by Jonathan Jones), and Watson delivered an absolute dart in the perfect spot for the TD. That was an exceptional play, really, and I hope to see more of it.

CS: Which side of the ball is more imposing the Texans offense or the Texans defense?

MH: I feel like there’s sort of a residual effect with the Texans having lousy quarterbacks for so long, that it’s going to take a sustained period of success before anyone starts believing in their offense. So I’d side with the defense. It seems like most people are speculating things like “Will J.J. Watt be the same when he returns?” and things of that nature, but I expect J.J. Watt to be J.J. Watt. With (Whitney) Mercilus, (Jadeveon) Clowney, and now (Tyrann) Mathieu floating around out there, it’s a defense that should be able to do damage. I think by midseason if Watson proves to be the real deal, people will be looking at them as a much more complete team.

CS: What's the confidence level in the pass catchers that aren't Rob Gronkowski and Chris Hogan?

MH: Just about as low as can be. We’ve basically seen two years that were somewhat similar – 2006 and 2013 – though, those years were worse. Gronkowski is obviously an absolute force, so long as he stays healthy. And the promise of a returning Julian Edelman after four weeks at least removes some of the sting from the current situation. But, well, you’ve got fans trying to talk themselves into the idea of Cordarrelle Patterson becoming a reliable receiving option, or Phillip Dorsett really breaking out. I’m not saying those events are impossible, but if I’m gambling man, I’m betting against both of them.

CS: Which running back should the Texans fans worry about the most?

MH: Great question, because we haven’t seen Sony Michel yet. Theoretically, he’s the most talented back, but this is a complicated offense, so having missed so much time this summer, I don’t know when he’ll be what he can be. So, for now, it’ll be James White, mostly because he has such a strong rapport with Brady that he’s always a threat both as a runner and a receiver.

CS: Do the Patriots have the talent to take advantage of Houston's offensive line?

MH: I think so. To me, Trey Flowers is the most underrated defensive player in the NFL. Adrian Clayborn has the potential to really disrupt things from the inside out. People outside of New England may not be thinking much about Derek Rivers, because he missed his rookie season with a torn ACL, but he is a tremendously large individual who racked up 35 sacks in his final 39 games at Youngstown State. Deatrich Wise is another second-year player who’s probably flying under a lot of radars, so I think the Patriots’ front seven is probably a little bit better than many folks might think. (The stinker of Super Bowl LII will have that kind of effect.)

CS: What's something Texans fans may not know about the Patriots that they should?

MH: Outside of the aforementioned [defensive linemen], I think the Patriots may be a little vulnerable at both tackle spots. Marcus Cannon was the best right tackle in the NFL in 2016, but he missed almost all of last year due to injury. This summer he’s battled an injury or two, so I wonder if he can get back to that form. (He never was great prior to 2016, so it’s no sure thing that he does return to that level.) On the left side is Trent Brown. The man is ridiculously large (6-foot-8, 380 pounds), and he looks very athletic and obviously strong. But I wonder if, on a hot Sunday afternoon, he gets a little bit winded and becomes a little bit vulnerable. That could be a huge key to this game. Even last year, Nate Solder got eaten up a little bit by Mercilus on the strip-sack, so the task is tall for both of these tackles to be at their best.

So there you have it. While I don't see what he sees in Trey Flowers the Texans are starting two guys at tackle who haven't played many games in the NFL in Seantrell Henderson and Julién Davenport. I agree with him on James White though Rex Burkhead is healthy and didn't appear on the Patriots initial injury report. The tackles being subpar in New England is an interesting development for the Texans defense which is as healthy as it has ever been. 

Michael does some great work for WBZ. Check out his article where he is bullish on the Texans: https://boston.cbslocal.com/2018/09/04/patriots-take-the-houston-texans-seriously/

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The Astros are back in action Friday night against the A's. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images.

The Astros need to whip up on the Oakland A’s this weekend in California as they did in sweeping four from them last week at Minute Maid Park. That was the start of a homestand which ended up with seven wins in 10 games. That goes down as a successful homestand, especially since it felt like the Astros’ prior winning homestand came while Donald Trump was President (it actually started in late July). Still, 7-3 doesn’t feel like a smashing success with it ending by dropping two of three games to the lowly Los Angeles Angels.

It is not exactly with bated breath that anyone should be waiting on Jose Abreu’s return to the lineup, but it’s coming. It should not be on this road trip. After the three games with the A’s the Astros move up the coast for a big four game set with American League West leading Seattle. The M's start all right-handed pitchers. That is no time to sit Jon Singleton to see if Abreu has managed to pump a few drops of gas into his tank while spending the better part of this month at the Astros’ minor league complex. It’s not as if Singleton has been stellar since Abreu’s departure, but by comparison, he’s been Lou Gehrig-esque. The series with the Mariners isn’t make or break but the Astros are strongly advised to get at least a split. That it should be Framber Valdez starting the opener Monday night doesn’t breed tremendous confidence, coming off his meltdown outing against the Angels. Another start, another opportunity.

The Mariners are at the Nationals this weekend, starting it a mere four and a half games ahead of the Astros. In four of the five other divisions the Astros' 22-28 record would have them at least 10 games off the lead.

One step forward, two steps back

Speaking of washed-up first basemen, Joey Votto should be a future Hall of Famer. The 40-year-old Canadian is trying to make it back to the big leagues via the minor leagues with the Toronto Blue Jays. Votto was an absolutely tremendous player with the Cincinnati Reds. As the Beastie Boys said, “Ch-check it out.” Over Jeff Bagwell’s first ten seasons with the Astros he hit .305 with a .417 on-base percentage and .552 slugging percentage, yielding a phenomenal .970 OPS. Over Votto’s first ten full seasons with the Reds: .313/.429/.540 for an exactly phenomenal .970 OPS. Where am I going with this? Read on!

Votto had phenomenal strike zone and bat control. He turned 30 during the 2013 season. That year Votto had 581 at bats. He popped out to an infielder once the entire season. Alex Bregman turned 30 the third day of this season. Bregman popped out to the shortstop four times in the Angels series. So much for Bregman’s “knob past the ball” epiphany that saw him hit three home runs over two games last week. Going into the weekend Bregman has one hit in his last 23 at bats. His season stats continue to be pitiful: a .209 batting average and .607 OPS. Bregman has only struck out once in the 23 at bats of his latest deep freeze. It’s that so much of his contract is feeble. There is a lot of season left for Bregman to build up to decent numbers, but one-third of the regular season will be complete after the Astros play the Mariners Monday night.

While Bregman’s season to date has basically been one long slump, Jose Altuve is in a funk of his own. Since blasting a homer Monday, Altuve is hitless in 12 at bats. Mini-slumps happen to everybody but Altuve’s woes trace back farther. Over his last 15 games, Altuve is batting .175. He last had more than one hit in a game May 5. He’s also drawn just two walks over those 15 games. It’s tough to ever sit Altuve, but he’s probably playing a little too much. Altuve turned 34 earlier this month. He has started 48 of the Astros 50 games at second base. Mauricio Dubon should be getting a start per week at second (and probably another at third given Bregman’s level of play). Over a full season not playing the field once per week still means 135 starts. Altuve should mix in some more at designated hitter (he has just one DH game so far this season). Wear and tear is a real thing, players don’t grow less susceptible to it as they get to their mid-30s.

King Tuck

On the flip side, Kyle Tucker! So far this season, he’s making himself as much money as Bregman is costing himself. Only Shohei Ohtani (1.069) starts the weekend action with an OPS higher than Tucker’s 1.060. The law of averages dictates that Tucker won’t finish as high as 1.060, but if he does, it would be the greatest full-length season offensive performance in Astros’ history. Jeff Bagwell posted an absurd 1.201 OPS in the strike-shortened 1994 campaign. Yordan Alvarez came in at 1.067 in his 87 games played rookie season of 2019. Lance Berkman’s 2001 was a monster. Enron Field was more hitter-friendly then than Minute Maid Park is now, but Berkman’s numbers were “Oh My Gosh!” spectacular. .331 batting average, 55 doubles (second in franchise history to Craig Biggio's 56 in 1999), 34 homers, .430 on-base percentage, .620 slugging percentage, and 1.051 OPS. And that was just Berkman’s second full season in the majors. Lance finished fifth in National League Most Valuable Player Award voting. Giant-headed Barry Bonds won MVP with his 73 home runs among other sicko stats.

* Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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