HOUSTON (AP) — After failing to stop the run all season, the Houston Texans will face another test on Sunday against the New England Patriots, a team that runs the ball more than any team 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 a game. Houston’s run defense has been the biggest problem in a dismal season where the team ranks last in the league in allowing 167.4 yards rushing a game.
Now the Texans (2-7) will have to face a New England team 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.
Houston defensive end J.J. Watt was asked about the challenge of facing New England’s unique rushing attack.
“We’ve got to stop all running games period,” 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 on Sunday will be limiting Newton.
“You’ve got to be aware of his capabilities in 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 losing their previous four games.
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 has nine touchdown passes with no interceptions in his past four games.
New England coach Bill Belichick knows Sunday’s 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
Texans interim coach Romeo Crennel and Belichick have known each other for decades and when they were both assistants for the 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 there back in the days.”
New England’s win over Baltimore last week was the start of a three-week stretch in which the Patriots will 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 Sunday’s game averaging a career-low 4.9 yards an attempt with one rushing touchdown. But he ranks in the top 10 in completion rate (68.1%), yards (2,539) and touchdown passes (18).
Patriots safety Devin McCourty said facing Jackson last week was a perfect primer for Sunday’s 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 Sunday.”
Watson was in high school when he first met Newton and now considers him a mentor, a brother and his favorite quarterback.
“He’s a guy that I based my game, especially at a young age, around what he did,” Watson said.
Watson and Newton talked on the phone often as he 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 that Watson will forever be grateful for.
“I just kind of followed his lead and his guidance and it led me here,” Watson said.
JACKSON IS ON A ROLL
Patriots cornerback and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore began the week as a limited participant in practice and remains questionable this week after missing the past three games with a knee injury.
It could leave the Patriots’ 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 NFL in 2020 with six interceptions and has a pick in each of the past five games. His 14 INTs since the start of the 2018 season are the most in the NFL over that span.
AP Sports Writer Kyle Hightower contributed to this report.