Guregian: Texans receivers could be huge problem for Patriots

September 22, 2016 GMT

FOXBORO — Cardinals receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd touched up the Patriots secondary for 11 catches for 142 yards and a pair of touchdowns in their Week 1 game.

Compared with what happened to Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Justin Coleman & Co., the following week against the Dolphins, that was merely a good day.

In the Pats’ home-opening win over Miami, Jarvis Landry and DeVante Parker combined to catch 18 passes for 243 yards, most of those coming in the second half when the defense allowed the Dolphins to rally and make the game interesting.

In tonight’s matchup with Houston, there won’t be any letup when it comes to receiving talent. The Texans have a talented trio of wideouts in DeAndre Hopkins, Jaelen Strong and rookie Will Fuller, the team’s first-round pick, who will be champing at the bit to test out the Pats secondary after seeing those numbers.

One of the keys in this game will be whether the Patriots secondary can show a more consistent compete level and stop the bleeding late in games. After all, if Brock Osweiler manages to light it up like Ryan Tannehill (32-for-45, 389 yards, 2 TDs) did after halftime, third-string quarterback Jacoby Brissett will have little to no shot in this game. And neither would Jimmy Garoppolo, if he somehow manages to play despite the painful AC joint sprain to his throwing shoulder.

“It’s a real competitive group coming in with explosive receivers,” Ryan said of the Texans Tuesday. “They like to throw the ball downfield, so there’s no better challenge for us on a short week, to put last game behind us and get excited for this one.”

Last year during their Week 13 matchup, the Pats were able to essentially eliminate Hopkins, the Texans’ top player, by using Ryan on him along with a heavy dose of safety help over the top.

That combination limited Hopkins to just three catches on six targets for 52 yards. If Bill Belichick goes that route again, Ryan will at least have some familiarity, given his preparation for Hopkins the last time around.

“It does (help). I’ve watched a lot of him in the past,” said Ryan. “But there’s new guys we have to get caught up on. Jaelen Strong, who we haven’t seen before, Will Fuller and Braxton Miller (who will not play). So we have to learn them pretty quickly.”

The Texans aren’t afraid to go deep and utilize the speed of both Hopkins and Fuller, taking advantage of the strong arm of Osweiler, who has already bonded with the two receivers. Hopkins has 12 catches for 167 yards (13.9 yards per catch) and two TDs while Fuller is averaging 23.4 yards per reception (9 catches, 211 yards) with a long of 53.

Safety Devin McCourty pretty much put it in perspective with regard to the Texans’ 1-2 punch.

“Obviously, Hopkins has been one of the top receivers for the last couple of years in the NFL, and Fuller has been a guy who has come out as a rookie with back-to-back 100-yard games, so we’re going to have our hands full,” he said. “Being in the secondary, that’s our first challenge right there; if we don’t stop that, we don’t give the rest of the defense a chance to play well on Thursday.”

The inconsistency of the pass rush hasn’t helped the secondary, but play has to improve in the back end. The Patriots have allowed five touchdowns in nine second-half drives in two games this season, and much of that is on the secondary.

“We’re just going to do our best to compete with these guys and find a way to win,” said Coleman. “We’ve got to improve, learn from the our previous game, and move forward.”

Osweiler, who the Texans signed to a $72 million free agent deal in the offseason, is no stranger to this defense, having beaten the Patriots while with the Broncos last season. So he’ll come in confident, and with head coach Bill O’Brien and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel leading the Texans, as well as several other coaches and players having some inside knowledge of the Patriots, he’ll be even more prepared.

Ryan said that’s fine. The Pats will be up for the challenge. They’ll be ready for Osweiler and his arsenal.

“He has a great arm. He’s not afraid to throw it out there. He’s confident,” said Ryan. “But that’s what you want when you’re a confident defense and a confident secondary. You want them to put it up there, and that’s what they want, too. That’s what makes it a great show and great thing to watch.”

For the secondary, and the Patriots defense as a whole, one of the main goals tonight will be competing for four quarters, playing as effectively in the second half as they have before halftime. Anything less won’t give a banged-up offense any chance of success.

“Most definitely, we want to do better,” said Butler, “but I’m just focused on what I can control, and that’s playing defense, and doing my job. Everything else will take care of itself.”