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Pre-Game Recon: Five Questions With Pats Pulpit

The Patriots get back on track after a solid victory over the Saints, but are they in mid-season form yet?

NFL: Houston Texans at Carolina Panthers Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

After the Kansas City Chiefs taught the Patriots an early lesson in Week One, New England’s defense performed much better against the New Orleans Saints last week. For their part, the Houston Texans have lost six of their last seven games against the Patriots. Rich Hill over at the Pats Pulpit was able to field some questions leading up to Sunday’s game at Gillette Stadium. Let’s see what he has to say about the upcoming game and the rivalry between the Texans and Patriots.

1. Breakout running back Mike Gillislee has had a great start to the season. His four rushing TDs leads all running backs in the NFL. Has New England and Josh McDaniels' offense found a replacement for LeGarrette Blount?

The Patriots haven’t just found a replacement for Blount. They’ve found an improvement. Blount was perfect for what the Patriots wanted to do on offense, but he required great blocking up front in order to get past the line of scrimmage. Blount has a slow acceleration, and that led to a lot of negative or zero-gain plays- but he overcame that deficiency by being a beast once he generated momentum.

Mike Gillislee is a different type of runner. He’s smaller than Blount, but he possesses a visibly superior first step and burst. He hits the line of scrimmage harder than Blount did and regularly turns what would have been a zero-yard gain for Blount into a two-yard gain; not much on an individual basis, but that incremental improvement adds up over the course of a whole game and sets up the offense with easier second and third down situations. He’s also ready to bust out a big gain in the next few weeks; he’s been pretty close to breaking free late in games.

2. Against New Orleans, Malcolm Butler began the game on the bench. Do you think Bill Belichick will do the same this week? Who will be in charge of stopping DeAndre Hopkins?

The Patriots seem to have a role in mind for all their defensive backs. Stephon Gilmore is the #1 cornerback and will match up against the top opposing receiver. Gilmore is taller than Butler and a superior athlete, so Bill Belichick believes Gilmore can be more competitive over the course of a whole game. Look for Gilmore to draw the match-up against Hopkins, just like how Logan Ryan has covered Hopkins in recent years.

Gilmore covered Saints WR1 Michael Thomas, which left 6’6” WR2 Brandon Coleman as the other option to cover. Butler stands at 5’10” in cleats, so that was a huge mismatch out of the gate and why the team opted to instead start 6’1” CB Eric Rowe. Butler probably would have had a bigger role if Willie Snead were not suspended, but he instead covered back-up Tommylee Lewis. The other option for Butler would have been to cover Ted Ginn Jr., but Butler’s biggest weakness is speedy receivers, so 4.33 CB Jonathan Jones drew Ginn in coverage.

Simply put, Butler will not be asked to cover any receiver taller than 6’2”. With a host of 6’4”+ targets on the upcoming schedule, we might see Butler coming off the bench more in the coming weeks.

3. The Texans have a highly publicized issue with putting points on the board. We also saw in Week One that the speed of Kansas City be a problem for your LBs in coverage. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Patriots’ defense?

The Chiefs really took advantage of the injury to Dont’a Hightower in the passing game and immediately picked on his replacement, Cassius Marsh. Marsh was acquired the prior week; he didn’t really know the system and it showed. The bigger problem against the Chiefs for the Patriots was poor play by their defensive interior, as typically stalwart Alan Branch was moved out of the gap with ease. New England adjusted in Week Two by giving Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler more time, so we’ll have to see if that becomes a permanent change.

The Patriots’ weakness on defense could play into the Texans’ strength: covering tight ends. Patrick Chung has struggled with this role at times in recent years and he continued that struggle against the Saints. The Patriots have asked Chung to cover the running back out of the backfield and have moved Devin McCourty into coverage of the tight end. That seemed to work better.

The best thing that the Patriots do is keep the quarterback in the pocket. They eliminate the first read and they don’t give the quarterback any space to scramble. If a quarterback ever beats the Patriots, it’s because he’s winning with the third or fourth option in their offense and he doesn’t panic if he has to stay in the pocket. This should play into the Patriots’ advantage against the Texans.

4. Seems like we play the Patriots every year, and they get the best of the Texans every time. What does the Patriots’ fan base think when they see the Houston Texans on the schedule each year? Do they automatically put a check in the win column?

Patriots fans see the Houston defensive front seven and just hope that Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski leave the game with their health intact. No one wants to stare down J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus, and Jadeveon Clowney, especially with RT Marcus Cannon battling an ankle injury. If Brady can get two seconds in the pocket, though, the offense should be fine enough.

I think most look at this game and say that 17 points should be enough to win this. It’s like the game against the Denver Broncos last season; a beastly defense with a struggling offense where the Patriots try to get a lead and then run out the clock.

5. What is your prediction for the game?

I think the Patriots will start slowly, but will start pulling away from the Texans in the second half to win 24-10.

Thanks again for the great answers, Rich. I look forward to another great matchup between these two teams. This game does not have the same magnitude as the last time the Texans and Patriots met, but hopefully it will have a different outcome.