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Burkhead stands out in Pats' preseason loss

Boston Herald

August 20. 2017 9:07PM
New England Patriots running back Rex Burkhead runs for a touchdown against the Houston Texans during the first half of Saturday's game at NRG Stadium. (Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports)

HOUSTON — Tom Brady’s heavy hitters aren’t always the ones who inflict the most harm.

The Patriots again proved that Saturday night in a 27-23 loss to the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium, as running back Rex Burkhead capped Brady’s second series with an impressive 22-yard touchdown reception that tied the game in the second quarter.

Tight end Rob Gronkowski played his first preseason game in five years, and wideout Brandin Cooks was on the receiving end of Brady’s first completion of the exhibition season.

But it was Burkhead who had the best night among the starting group’s limited workload, as he hauled in three passes for 50 yards during the touchdown march. Burkhead, who was buried on the Bengals’ depth chart for the past four years, added seven carries for 20 yards.

That’s what makes the Patriots such a challenge to defend. Brady was 6-of-9 for 67 yards and a touchdown in two series of work, but he didn’t complete a pass to Gronkowski or wide receivers Julian Edelman or Chris Hogan. The 40-year-old quarterback, who made his preseason debut after the veterans had the night off against the Jacksonville Jaguars, didn’t even take a deep shot to Cooks.

“I think that’s what makes a good offense — having a lot of versatility,” Brady said. “I’ve said for a long time, I throw to where the guys are open. If they double someone, everyone else is singled across the board, so you’ve just got to be careful who you double. If we’ve got the right play called against a certain defense, it’s tough to stop us. We were decent out there. Obviously, I had quite a few mistakes that we’ve got to clean up.”

The Texans return the bulk of the immensely talented defense that allowed the fewest yards in the NFL last season, and that was evident during a pair of joint practices last week at the Greenbrier in West Virginia. But when a defense is dizzied by the notion of containing Gronkowski, Edelman, Cooks and Hogan, it can’t lose sight of the perceived lesser evil.

“We’ve got a lot of versatility, that’s for sure,” Burkhead said. “The key is just putting it together and making sure we’re all on the same page. Because if we’re not, talent means nothing. We definitely have it. As long as we stick together and try not to be selfish about things, the sky is the limit.”

Burkhead ran a wicked route against linebacker Zach Cunningham, beat him to the inside to catch a short pass and raced free for an easy touchdown. Brady picked on Cunningham throughout the week in the joint workouts, so he knew there’d be an opportunity with the right look in the game.

It was similar to the last time the Patriots suited up at NRG Stadium, where running back James White set a Super Bowl record with 14 catches for 110 yards and three total touchdowns against the Falcons. And at that point, Gronkowski was two months removed from back surgery and the Patriots were still a month away from acquiring Cooks from the New Orleans Saints.

The night wasn’t perfect for Brady and the starters, thanks in large part to some shaky offensive-line play. Brady had to throw away his first attempt of the night due to pressure, and a closing pocket from both sides was the culprit for a missed connection between Brady and Edelman on third down. Brady was also nearly intercepted on the opening play of his second series because he undershot a sideline bid to Hogan, but safety Andre Hal couldn’t get two feet inbounds to secure the pick.

It was a largely positive performance, however. Cooks beat Texans top cornerback Kevin Johnson for 7 yards on an out route to continue another trend from the week. Johnson, a first-round pick in 2016 who missed his rookie season due to injury, is replacing departed free agent corner A.J. Bouye. Cooks had his way with Johnson during the Wednesday practice.

Brady did the most damage with his running backs. On third-and-3 in his first series of the game, he recognized White was isolated against safety Eddie Pleasant in the left flat and quickly dumped off the ball. White’s stutter step was enough to create space for a 4-yard gain and a first down.

And on the second series, Brady had easy completions to Burkhead in the right flat on consecutive plays for gains of 16 and 12 yards. Again, when the Texans were more heavily concerned with the big hitters, Brady went underneath, and Burkhead’s 22-yard catch and run tied the game, 7-7, with 12:40 remaining in the second quarter and ended the night for the offensive starters.

Tom Savage and Jaelen Strong connected for a 2-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter that gave the Texans a 7-0 lead. Strong beat cornerback Malcolm Butler on an inside route for the score.

Stephen Gostkowski kicked three field goals (38, 51, 42 yards) in the second and third quarters.

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