It’s only Week 5 of the regular season, but if the New England Patriots want to be playoff contenders, their game Sunday afternoon is a must-win. The Patriots simply cannot afford to drop to 1-4.
To avoid a 1-4 start, the Patriots must defeat the Houston Texans. The Texans currently sit at 1-3. Despite the two teams having identical records, there is a pretty wide talent gap between the two organizations. With that in mind, here’s a look at how the Patriots and Texans stack up position group vs position group.
Positional matchups for Patriots vs. Texans
For the first time in 2021, the Patriots project to have a decisive advantage under center. Davis Mills is a developmental rookie quarterback who was unexpectedly thrust into a starting a starting role due to an injury to Tyrod Taylor.
While Mills has performed admirably, given the circumstances he’s in, he’s simply not as far along into his NFL development as Mac Jones.
Jones is coming off the biggest game of his young career and the rookie looked up to the task. He’s shown poise, toughness, and great accuracy. He will look to build on that this week against a surprisingly solid Texans secondary.
The only running backs left on the roster that the Patriots seem to trust are Damien Harris and core special teamer Brandon Bolden.
Both J.J. Taylor and Rhamondre Stevenson have had issues with ball security, and there are concerns for both players in pass protection. With Harris being the only legitimate threat that the Patriots are willing to play, you simply can’t give them the advantage here until they show they’re willing to play one of the younger backs or feature Harris in a full-blown three-down workhorse role.
The Texans’ running back group isn’t high level by any stretch of the imagination, but they do have some solid depth in their rotation.
Phillip Lindsay is the most well-rounded and probably has the most juice out of all of the group. Mark Ingram is the best back they have when running between the tackles. David Johnson, meanwhile, is the more reliable pass catcher.
Old friend Rex Burkhead, who I personally think New England should look to re-acquire via trade, has been ruled out for Sunday’s game.
Brandin Cooks is the best of the bunch, but Jakobi Meyers, Nelson Agholor, and Kendrick Bourne are all better than any other wideout on Houston’s roster. Beyond their top three guys though, New England doesn’t have a lot of quality depth.
N’Keal Harry made his 2021 debut last week but was only able to add one catch on one target in a game where Jones attempted 40 passes.
The Texans passing attack has very little to offer behind Cooks. Chris Conley and former Patriot Danny Amendola make up the other two starters at wideout. It should be noted that Amendola is currently listed as questionable for Sunday’s game. Houston’s promising rookie wideout, Nico Collins, is currently on injured reserve.
It wasn’t an overly impressive outing, but New England’s tight ends showed signs of life last week against the Buccaneers. Both Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry recorded touchdown catches. The hope is that they’re able to build off last week’s success and be a bigger part of the game plan going forward. It certainly feels like both players are on the cusp of a breakout game.
Houston’s top tight end duo consists of Pharaoh Brown and Jordan Akins. That’s not an overly dynamic group. Former college standout Brevin Jordan, a rookie, is buried on the depth chart right now.
The New England offensive line has struggled mightily to start the 2021 season. To make matters even worse, the Patriots will be missing four out of five offensive line starters for their Week 5 clash with the Texans.
Trent Brown and Shaq Mason are out with injuries while Isaiah Wynn and Michael Onwenu remain on the COVID-19 reserve list.
That means that David Andrews is the only remaining starter. Joining him on Sunday will be some four-man mixture of Justin Herron, Yasir Durant, Ted Karras, Alex Redmond, James Ferentz, and Yodny Cajuste.
Regardless of which backups start for New England on Sunday, the bottom line is that the Patriots are in serious trouble upfront. None of those depth pieces are proven capable starters aside from Karras. It’s not an ideal situation for the Patriots to be in and could lead to some difficulties moving the ball.
The Texans offensive line isn’t anything to write home about either, but it’s considerably healthier than New England’s.
Laremy Tunsil is an imposing player and Houston’s best offensive linemen. Tytus Howard, who was originally drafted as a tackle, starts at left guard. Justin Britt and Max Scharping round out the interior for Houston. Former Patriot Marcus Cannon bookends the line opposite Tunsil at the right tackle spot. That said, Cannon is questionable for the game on Sunday. In his place would start Charlie Heck.
Interior defensive line
Despite losing Henry Anderson for the season in last week’s game, the Patriots still roster a deep interior group.
Rookie Christian Barmore seems to be emerging as a high-level pass rusher for New England. He’s had an impressive start to his rookie season. Deatrich Wise is also playing really good football, while Davon Godchaux is showing more consistency. Lawrence Guy is still a solid player too, despite a slow start to the season.
As for the Texans, Ross Blacklock is a young, ascending player but will likely be out for Sunday’s contest. That said, the trio of Maliek Collins, Roy Lopez, and DeMarcus Walker has shown flashes of good play this year. Houston has some solid players here, but New England has more depth.
This is an easy advantage for New England. I can’t say enough good things about Matt Judon, who’s playing at close to an All-Pro level.
Beyond Judon though, Josh Uche and Chase Winovich provide New England with a pair of quality options as pass rush specialists at the edge spot. Uche looks primed to expand into a three-down role.
Kyle Van Noy has had some inconsistencies, but his overall body of work has been solid enough. Longtime defensive leader Dont’a Hightower probably needs to transition away from an off-ball role, as he doesn’t look like he has much to offer in the middle of the field anymore. He’s better suited to play edge at this stage of his career. That said, the return of the uber-athletic Jamie Collins should provide a boost of speed to the Patriots linebacker group.
Whitney Mercilus and Christian Kirksey highlight the edge/linebacker group for Houston. Mercilus is still a very good pass rusher. He could potentially create issues for a struggling and injured Patriots offensive line.
Joining Mercilus at edge is Jacob Martin, Charles Omenihu, and Jonathan Greenard. Not a group that will scare you, but some decent players.
As for linebacker, Kirksey is flanked by Zach Cunningham and Joe Thomas when the Texans are in their base defense. Additionally, former Patriot Kamu Grugier-Hill sees a good amount of snaps as a rotational player. Neville Hewitt and Garret Wallow fill out the rest of Houston’s depth chart.
Overshadowed by the shocking news of star Stephon Gilmore’s trade to Carolina, is just how well New England’s group of cornerbacks have played to this point.
J.C. Jackson looks much better and much more comfortable in the CB1 role than he did a year ago. Jalen Mills, who many people (including myself) expected to be a liability on the outside against premier passing attacks, has played very well these last few weeks.
It is important to note that slot man Jonathan Jones did appear to get banged up in last week’s contest. JoeJuan Williams or Myles Bryant would be the next man up behind Jones. Bryant has shown more upside than Williams thus far.
For Houston, Vernon Hargreaves III and Terrance Mitchell typically get the starting nod in base defense. Desmond King II sees plenty of reps as the nickel corner, but he’s also shown the ability to play out wide too.
That trio has quietly accounted for three forced fumbles, one interception, and six pass breakups through four games this year. Much like New England’s cornerback group, they seem to be greater than the sum of their parts.
One storyline that has seemingly flown under the radar this season for New England is the improvement that second-year player Kyle Dugger has made in regards to his coverage abilities.
Dugger has rare speed, power, and explosiveness for his size. Now that he’s learning the finer points of playing coverage he’s well-positioned to evolve into a game-changer for the New England secondary.
Elsewhere at safety, Devin McCourty continues in his perennially under-appreciated role as the centerfielder of the defense, while Adrian Phillips just will not stop making plays all over the field as Bill Belichick’s Swiss Army knife.
Much like their corners, Houston’s safeties have been effective at creating turnovers. Their safety group has combined for one forced fumble and three interceptions through four games. Justin Reid is a terrific player and has the starting free safety gig. Eric Murray and Lonnie Johnson Jr. are Houstons other key safeties. Both see plenty of playing time as well.
Neither Houston nor New England has been particularly good on special teams this season. New England has the edge though because of their stability in the kicking game. Despite missing last week, Nick Folk is still one of the most reliable kickers in the NFL.
New England has a massive coaching advantage in this one. David Culley is a first-year head coach and Belichick is the best of all time. That’s about all there is to it.
This article was edited by Luke Ervin.