FOXBORO -- Deshaun Watson's first trip to Gillette Stadium was broken down fairly easily: Inside the pocket he was an All-Pro; outside the pocket he wasn't human.
So what'd the Patriots do before seeing him again? They put a football in the hands of some of their more athletic corners and had their defensive linemen chase them around. But chase them around in a very specific manner.
"It's a balance between patience and discipline and aggressiveness," Deatrich Wise said after the game. "It's kind of like ingredients. You don't want to put in too much salt because it's nasty, too much sugar because it's too sweet. Can't put too much of one or the other in because it doesn't taste good so you kind of have to blend all that together."
Hard to slap proper measurements on the characteristics needed to rush Watson successfully, but the Patriots seemed to find that mixture or patience, discipline and aggressiveness early.
Malcom Brown hit Watson for a near safety in the first quarter. Dont'a Hightower pegged him a few plays later. On the following drive, Keionta Davis picked up his first NFL quarterback hit. Two snaps later and Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise split a sack. That was all before the start of the second quarter.
The Patriots finished with three sacks (1.5 each for Flowers and Wise), four more quarterback hits, and 19 quarterback pressures generated by nine different players, per Pro Football Focus. Having that number of players to speed up Watson allowed the defensive linemen to feed off each other. The spread-out nature of their production also made it difficult on the Texans to focus on one pass-rusher to try to neutralize.
"You got a lot of great guys on the defensive front, whether it's on the interior or on the outside," said Flowers. "I feel our matchup against any team can give them problems and we can be productive. I just feel as though we came into the game confident and knew we was gonna be able to get after them."
Though the formula Wise described paid off, a truer recipe for success on Sunday would've looked like this: equal parts patience, discipline, aggressiveness, pinch of a quarterback coming back off a serious knee injury, and a dash of what might be one of the worst offensive lines in football.
However Sunday's showing came to be, the Patriots secondary -- which held up its end of the bargain by staying close in coverage to allow rushers to get home -- was happy to see their bigger teammates shine. It was particularly nice to not have to plaster to receivers for extended periods of time while Watson moved from side to side to create time and space.
"That's just a credit to the d-line, getting to the quarterback not letting him go. Last year he was running back and forth. We know he can do that," said Eric Rowe. "This year, d-line did a great job. I know a couple plays I had to stick on a receiver, but it wasn't very long. They did a great job up front."
"It's amazing. Although our job is to cover the receivers for as long as we need to, but covering great athletes like that for seven, eight seconds, it's hard," Duron Harmon said. "But when your d-line is doing a good job rushing the quarterback, rushing him the right way, containing him in the pocket and then getting sacks, it makes our job a lot easier . . .
"It allows us to be more aggressive just in our coverage, how tight we're playing how aggressive we are knowing our defensive line is going to get there. I'm excited to look at the film, to how we can grow, see how we can get better and how we can be maybe even a little bit more aggressive next week."
That figures to be the case when the Patriots travel to Jacksonville and its meager passing offense (Blake Bortles went 18-for-33 for 176 yards in a win over the Giants on Sunday). Should the Patriots find that they have several bodies to converge on quarterbacks for the foreseeable future -- Derek Rivers was a healthy scratch they felt so good about their pass rush -- then that could mean more hurried decisions, more turnovers, more . . . wins?
That's the idea.
"Me personally, as a deep field safety, reading the quarterback, you can start to see him looking at the rush and not even looking downfield any more," Harmon said. "They did a tremendous job today. A lot of the success of our defense really starts with the defensive line."
"If they're getting after the quarterback, he's either gotta get it out quicker or he's going to make a bad decision," Rowe said. "That allows us to jump routes or undercut. If the d-line gets going like that, it makes our job a lot easier."