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Sunday, 20 August 2017 14:59

Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Brandin Cooks Make Preseason Debut, Rex Burkhead, Stephen Gostkowski Shine In Loss To Texans

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Patriots running back Rex Burkhead Patriots running back Rex Burkhead AP/David J. Phillip

Leave it to Bill Belichick to spice up the second preseason game.

Belichick not only dressed Rob Gronkowski - as he did against Jacksonville - he told him to put on his protective forearm brace before kickoff, a sign the Patriots coach was going to let the star tight end play in the preseason for the first time since the third preseason game of 2012 against the Saints.

Gronkowski, who missed the last five games of the 2016 season and the entire postseason run due to back surgery, saw the field on the first three drives, all with Tom Brady at quarterback. It would not be at all surprising that Belichick and the coaching staff wanted to make sure Gronkowski's back would hold up under game conditions before clearing him for game action.

"I think we all need a lot of work," Belichick said of the Gronkowski decision to WBZ's Steve Burton at halftime, as the Patriots came out for the third quarter with a 13-10 lead.

The Patriots fell to the Texans in Houston, 27-23, to fall to 0-2 on the preseason. The Patriots will play in Detroit next Friday before closing the preseason on Aug. 31 at Gillette Stadium against the Giants.

Gronkowski's biggest role was blocking in the running game for Rex Burkhead, who was the star of the first team offense. He caught three passes on three targets for 50 yards and a 22-yard touchdown. He also ran seven times for 20 yards. Gronk was not targeted in the passing game and came out early in the second quarter, when Jimmy Garoppolo replaced Brady at quarterback. Cooks caught one short pass of seven yards on an out route but was not targeted deep by Brady.

Gronkowski played in 15 of the first 17 Patriots offensive snaps before watching the rest of the game from the sidelines.

The Patriots and Texans attempted to keep the playbook fairly simple as the two teams meet at Gillette Stadium on Sept. 24.

The biggest positive takeaway was explosive play of the Patriots' running backs.

However on the negative side, Matt Patricia's defense, has allowed six plays of 30 yards or more over the first two preseason games.

While Brady, Gronkowski, James White, Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan and Julian Edelman all saw their first preseason action, the offensive line was mostly in tact, with the exception of Cameron Fleming, who started at left tackle. Fleming did get bull-rushed badly on Brady's 22-yard touchdown strike over the middle to Burkhead. The left tackle spot is one that bears close watching as Nate Solder has not practiced and LaAdrian Waddle was injured in practice this week.

Brady and the starting offense played just two series. Brady went 6-of-9 passing for 67 yards and a touchdown. (Click here for a full box score.)

Facing Texans starting quarterback Tom Savage, it was Kony Ealy and Lawrence Guy on the edges of the Patriots defensive line in the first game after rookie defensive end Derek Rivers tore his ACL in joint practices on Wednesday in West Virginia. Malcom Brown and Alan Branch, who came off PUP this week, started in the middle.

Another rookie edge rusher, Deatrich Wise, did not play after suffering a concussion in the first preseason game against Jacksonville.

Patriots fans got their first look at the highly-touted cornerback tandem of Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore.

It was a rough first quarter to say the least for Butler. On Houston's first drive, he failed to leap for a lofted pass over his head and allowed a 37-yard completion to Bruce Ellington on the right sideline at the Patriots' 12. Just before the big play, Kony Ealy was called for a neutral zone infraction while Kyle Van Noy was called for driving Savage into the ground. But the Patriots defense stiffened, with Ealy looking better.

The biggest issue for the Patriots' defense in the first quarter were the self-inflicted wounds. On the Texans' second drive, the Patriots were not as fortunate and it was a big penalty that hurt them again. Harvey Langi was called for an illegal use of hands to the helmet on second-and-7 at the Patriots' 9. Two plays later, it was Jalen Strong beating Butler on an in-cut in the back of the end zone for a 7-0 Texans' lead.

The Patriots and Brady responded with a 10-play, 75-yard drive. The drive featured everything Rex Burkhead could be in the new-look dynamic Patriots' offense. After Brady's interception by Andre Hal on a pass intended for Chris Hogan was overturned, Burkhead ran the ball five times for 14 yards and caught four passes for 56 yards, including a 22-yarder over the middle in which he shook off linebacker Zach Cunningham and cut over the middle wide open for an easy touchdown.

In addition to Burkhead's breakout performance on the drive, other highlights of the first half included Stephen Gostkowski's two field goals from 38 and 51 yards, the last of which gave the Patriots their 13-10 lead at the half.

Gostkowski added a 42-yarder in the third quarter to expand the lead to 16-10.

But the preseason bugaboo of big plays bit the Patriots' defense on the next drive. On a simple dump pass over the middle, D'Onta Foreman scooted 63 yards down to the Patriots' 4. There were missed tackles by Cyrus Jones among others. But the biggest issue on the play was Jonathan Freeny colliding with linebacker Elandon Roberts near the line of scrimmage. Roberts went down in pain and walked off under his own power but left moments later on a cart. The team announced that Roberts sustained a rib injury and would not return.

On special teams, Cyrus Jones again showed flashes with returns of 32, 12 and 10 yards. But on the negative side, Jones decided to catch a punt deep in Patriots territory late in the first half that pinned the Patriots at their own 9. The final return of 10 yards put the Patriots at midfield with under two minutes left in the game and gave Jacoby Brissett one more chance to win the game.

Brissett moved the team down to the Houston 8 for first-and-goal. The first play was completed to Cody Hollister, who couldn't come down in bounds in the end zone. The second play resulted in a strip-sack from behind. The ball wobbled through the end zone for a touchback and game-ending turnover.

Garoppolo, after getting strip-sacked by Tony Washington on a vicious hit, came back and put the Patriots back on top using the same flash play over the middle that worked for Brady and Burkhead in the second quarter. Garoppolo found DJ Foster over the middle and Foster ran hard for a 26-yard score, exploding through three tacklers for the final two yards. It was again Cunningham getting burned in coverage for the Texans. Garoppolo was 6-for-6 for 70 yards passing on the drive.

Garoppolo followed up a great drive with a horrid decision. He scrambled to his right and appeared to be throwing the ball away in the vicinity of Jacob Hollister. But the pass didn't get to the sideline and was picked off by Denzel Rice, who returned it to the Patriots 4. On the next play, Foreman ran it in to put the Texans back up, 27-23.

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