HOUSTON — After failing to stop the run all season, the Houston Texans face another test today against a New England Patriots team that runs the ball more than anybody in the NFL.
The Patriots (4-5) lead the NFL this season with 301 rushing attempts and rank third by averaging 161.1 yards rushing per game. Houston’s run defense has been the biggest problem during a dismal season in which the Texans rank last in the league, allowing 167.4 yards rushing a game.
Today, the Texans (2-7) have to face a New England squad that not only has Damien Harris, who rushed for a career-high 121 yards last week, but also quarterback Cam Newton, who ranks third in the NFL with nine rushing touchdowns.
“We’ve got to stop all running games period,” Houston defensive end J.J. Watt said. “That’s something we haven’t done well all year. You have to play your gap, shed your blocks, make tackles. Everybody’s got to do their job.”
Watt, who has become increasingly frustrated this season as the losses have piled up, believes the key to success today will be limiting Newton.
“You’ve got to be aware of his capabilities on every single play,” Watt said. “He can do just about anything out there.”
The Patriots are trying to build on the momentum of winning two in a row after a four-game skid.
While the Texans are focused on slowing down New England’s running game, the Patriots will look to limit Deshaun Watson and Houston’s dynamic passing game. Watson threw for a season-low 163 yards in a loss to Cleveland last week in tough weather conditions but had nine touchdown passes without an interception over the past four games.
New England coach Bill Belichick knows the game will be a challenge for his team despite Houston’s struggles this season.
“We all know this is a very good and talented football team,” Belichick said. “Their record doesn’t really mean anything to me. What means something is the way they play, the way that they’re coached and the talent that they have on the field. They’re very good at everything.”
Having a ball
Belichick and Texans interim coach Romeo Crennel have known each other for decades. When they were both assistants for the New York Giants in the 1980s, they often played racquetball together.
“That was a good indicator of how Bill approached competition and the game because he would figure out your weakness and then he would attack your weakness,” Crennel said. “That is the way he does with football.”
Belichick, who is often short with reporters, spoke at length when asked about those games and his relationship with Crennel.
“He’s a great football coach. One of the very best I’ve ever worked with,” Belichick said. “He’s a great friend. I’m not going to call him a great racquetball player. I’d say neither one of us would fall into that category, but we did have a lot of good times trying to stay in shape back in the days.”
New England’s win over Baltimore last week was the start of a three-week stretch in which the Patriots face three of the NFL’s top dual-threat quarterbacks in the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson, Watson and Arizona’s Kyler Murray.
The Patriots held Jackson to 55 yards on 11 carries. Watson enters today averaging a career-low 4.9 yards an attempt and has only one rushing touchdown. But he ranks in the top 10 in completion percentage (68.1), yards passing (2,539) and touchdown passes (18).
Patriots safety Devin McCourty said facing Jackson last week was a perfect primer for the matchup with Watson.
“(Watson) definitely creates just as big of a threat that we had last week,” McCourty said. “Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, we’ll see some of those same things.”
Watson was in high school when he first met Newton and now considers him a mentor and his favorite quarterback.
“He’s a guy that I based my game, especially at a young age, around what he did,” Watson said.
The quarterbacks talked on the phone often as Watson finished high school and throughout his college career at Clemson. Newton shared advice on school, life and what it was like to be an NFL quarterback — lessons for which Watson will forever be grateful.
“I just kind of followed his lead and his guidance and it led me here,” Watson said.
Jackson is on a roll
Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore — the reigning NFL defensive player of the year — began the week as a limited participant in practice and remains questionable after missing the past three games with a knee injury.
It could leave the New England defense short-handed for another game as it prepares to face the league’s eighth-ranked passing offense.
The encouraging news is that cornerback J.C. Jackson is playing some of the best football of his career. He leads the league this season with six interceptions, including a pick in each of the past five games. His 14 interceptions since the start of the 2018 season are the most in the NFL during that span.