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All Signs Point To an Improved Patriots Defense

The Patriots kept Texans QB Deshaun Watson under control in the first game of the regular season—something that shouldn't be taken for granted, given the defense’s performance at the end of last season and this preseason.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Tom Brady had just turned the ball over deep in Patriots territory, on a pass to a running back that was tipped into the hands of Texans safety Tyrann Mathieu. Deshaun Watson and the Houston offense took over the ball just 17 yards from the end zone.

Three plays later, the rush closed in on the young quarterback who had escaped the Patriots’ grasp so many times on this same field last September. But this year, on this third-and-10 play, the Patriots collapsed the pocket from all directions. Trey Flowers converged from Watson’s right side, and Adrian Clayborn from his left, and then Deatrich Wise Jr., looped around to finish off the sack. Houston settled for a field goal.

“I remember the pocket closing, and [Watson] looking to scramble,” Wise says. “I just saw kind of an open spot, and I just so happened to be in that area, saw he was still up and attacked him.”

The Patriots sacked Watson a total of three times in their 27–20 win against the Texans, and they hit him 12 times. From the start of the game, they made the second-year quarterback look uncomfortable in a way they hadn’t been able to last year, when Watson passed for 301 yards in just the second start of his NFL career.

It’s a fool’s errand to make any grand proclamations off Week 1, but there were certainly some promising signs in New England that the Patriots have fixed their defense. Last year’s defense started out the season with a brutal four-game stretch, and it ended the same way. We all remembered the 41 points and 538 yards of offense the Patriots allowed, and the exactly zero sacks they tallied, in the Super Bowl LII loss to Philadelphia.

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Of all the outstanding questions this offseason—Would Tom Brady find his conviction? Will Gronkowski be back? Is the dynasty ending?—the leaky defense didn’t get quite the same billing. But the way last season ended was uncharacteristic of Bill Belichick’s teams in Foxborough, bleeding away so many big plays on that cold night in Minnesota, that Brady passed for more than 500 yards and still lost the game. In the months since, they lost defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to Detroit, replacing him with Brian Flores; former Super Bowl XLIX hero Malcolm Butler departed in free agency to the Titans; and the defense's performance this preseason raised some eyebrows.

That’s why the showing against the Texans was meaningful, and more than just a routine opening-day win for the Patriots. The pass rush kept Watson out of a rhythm in his first game back from a season-ending ACL tear. The plan to get to him was different than last year—a more aggressive approach despite the everpresent threat with mobile quarterbacks that they’ll escape the rush with their legs. “We felt as though we had to be aggressive,” Flowers says. “You can’t just let him sit back there, because they’ve also got a lot of great skill guys in the back end that can get open. … We knew we had to be aggressive, but we also had to be aware. He made a few plays, but for the most part, we kept him contained.”

The Patriots were also able to get pressure just by sending four, and without having to blitz, something else that players said was a tenet of the game plan. Both Wise and Flowers tallied 1.5 sacks apiece, and the Patriots harassed Watson into making mistakes. Lawrence Guy pressured Watson into throwing deep into double coverage, a throw that was picked off in the end zone by cornerback Stephon Gilmore. On the back end, Gilmore spent most of the afternoon shadowing top Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who was held under 100 yards for the game.

Wise, a fourth-round pick in 2017, was pretty hyped that he had the same sack total as Flowers and broke out a brand-new “bowling” post-sack celebration. After the game, he talked about using last year’s game against Watson as a benchmark for how much he and fellow second-year player Adam Butler have grown in the last year. It’s a growth that the entire defense, young and old, is hoping to see. Of course, some (the head coach) would point out that last season is a low bar to clear.

“We certainly played [Watson] better than we did last year,” Belichick said, “not that that would take much.”