FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The last time the Houston Texans rode into town, their pass rush tormented Tom Brady last year. They pestered him with five sacks and eight hits.

Their rush was so constant they forced three fumbles on strip sacks.

But Brady got the last laugh, throwing for 378 yards and five touchdowns in the 36-33 win as he outdueled rookie Deshaun Watson in that Week 3 game.

With the Texans heading to Gillette Stadium for the season opener Sunday, and the Jacksonville Jaguars on deck, at least one variable from the above scenario needs to change.

With Brady now 41, and Jimmy Garoppolo no longer around as the successor in waiting, the offensive line has to do a much better job protecting him.

Brady can’t be exposed to so many hits. He can’t be another team’s road kill. Not this year.

Sure, Brady has some magical, mystical quality that’s allowed him to escape more serious injuries from all the hits he’s endured over 18 seasons. He’s learned how to fall and protect himself and all that.

Still, J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus, Jadeveon Clowney and Benardrick McKinney can’t be allowed to tee off on him. Brady can’t get hurt. It’s not an option.

Patriots offensive line guru Dante Scarnecchia is well aware of that, and well aware of the threat the Texans’ front poses. He said Sunday it would be a huge challenge for the Patriots’ line, especially with the four “dynamic” players – Watt, Mercilus, Clowney and McKinney.

“They did get to him (last time). Hey, they’re good. They’re capable of doing that any time,” Scarnecchia said with respect to the pass rush. “Hopefully we keep the wolves at bay. They’re pretty darn good.”

It wasn’t the best news having Brady’s blindside protector Trent Brown missing from practice Sunday. The left tackle was seen walking through the locker room earlier in the day. Brown had surgery on his right shoulder last December but has been healthy and a regular participant throughout the preseason. He’s looked more than capable of assuming the job that was left open after Nate Solder’s departure via free agency.

If Brown misses more time this week, and is at risk of not playing, that’s a potential disaster. Right now it doesn’t seem that dire, just something to monitor as the week progresses.

Right tackle Marcus Cannon, meanwhile, appears on track to be ready to play, according to Scarnecchia. They’re going to need all hands on deck.

Cannon didn’t play in that Texans game last year, so his presence would help. He’s done well against Watt in the past.

But it’s not just Watt, who’s returning from a broken leg. They come from everywhere.

Romeo Crennel, who won three rings on Bill Belichick’s staff, is back as the defensive coordinator, with Mike Vrabel leaving to take over as the head coach of the Tennessee Titans.

Bill Belichick spoke Monday about Crennel’s craftiness.

“Nobody’s better than Romeo in running a defense, and creating problems for the offense and utilizing his personnel,” said Belichick. “It’s just a very challenging situation for us … to be able to not only handle players where they traditionally line up, but when he creates schemes that moves them or puts them in places to attack our offense. That makes it even a little more challenging.”

Crennel moves his rushers around to give them different looks and preferred matchups.

“When you take a guy like Clowney, and all of a sudden they move him to linebacker behind the line,” said Scarnecchia, “it’s not because they want him to cover, they want him to blitz, and they want him matched up on a back. That’s a problem.”

James White, Jeremy Hill or whoever will have to pick up the 6-foot-5, 270-pound outside linebacker, if that’s the case.

Last season Brady was sacked 35 times. At one point early on he was playing with a bad shoulder given all the hits and takedowns. In 2016, a Super Bowl-winning season, he was sacked 15 times. The fewer times he’s sacked, the fewer times he’s hit, the better off the Patriots will be.

The Texans are going to test Scarnecchia’s line right away. Then it won’t get any easier with the Jaguars, who had 55 sacks last year, second best in the NFL.

“(The Texans) just keep throwing bricks on your pile that you have to carry. That’s a substantial thing. We just have to see if we’re up to it,” said Scarnecchia. “Whether or not we are, the key thing is to try to do a great job on first and second down, and avoid those (obvious pass-rush) situations. That sounds great. It’s not always doable. Hopefully it will be.”

With Brian Hoyer in the bullpen and no heir in sight, the Patriots can’t afford having Brady turn into a human punching bag. Not like last year’s game with the Texans.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.