FOXBORO, Mass. — The New England Patriots’ defense not only fended off the Houston Texans on Sunday, they also swatted away the storylines that filled newspapers and airwaves at this time last year.

After a slow start due to communication issues last September, an embarrassing Super Bowl performance, the departure of Malcolm Butler, some drafting missteps and preseason struggles, media and fans alike were ready to jump on the Patriots’ defense at a moment’s notice this year. They didn’t get their chance Sunday in New England’s 27-20 win over the Texans, though the performance was not perfect.

The Patriots let up just 325 total yards, 158 of which came through the air. They sacked Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson three times, picked him off once and recovered a fumble exchanged on a handoff. They did allow 167 yards on just 34 attempts on the ground for 4.9 yards per carry, however.

Some of that yardage they allowed on the ground can be excused, however. The Patriots led 21-6 at the half and were willing to let the Texans keep running the second half. They let up 76 yards on 17 carries while allowing the Texans to keep the clock rolling, culminating in a win.

Overall, it was a huge upgrade over the defensive performance last September against Houston in Week 3, when the Texans gained 417 yards with 292 coming through the air. It was an even bigger improvement over their performance in last season’s Week 1 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, when they let up 537 yards and 42 points. It was a monumental improvement over Super Bowl LII, when they allowed 538 yards and 41 points.

“We’ve been going at this since OTAs about how good we wanted to be, obviously, and how much we wanted to start better than we did last year,” Patriots safety Duron Harmon said. “It’s obviously just a start. I mean, it’s Week 1. We’ll look at the film tomorrow, and obviously, we’ll realize we didn’t do as good as we probably thought we did, but it’s a start.

The Patriots’ defense did a much better job against Watson this season in the QB’s first regular-season start since an ACL tear last November. He completed just 17-of-34 passes for 176 yards with one touchdown and one interception while picking up 40 yards on eight carries. Last year, Watson went 22-of-33 for 301 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions with eight carries for 41 yards. The Patriots had a tougher time bringing down Watson in that game, sacking him just twice.

A change in approach helped. It seemed in past years the Patriots only would try to contain mobile quarterbacks and not go after them. The Patriots’ defense generated 27 total pressures Sunday afternoon, forcing Watson to get rid of the ball quicker and not allowing his receivers time to get open.

“We felt as though we had to be aggressive,” defensive end Trey Flowers, who had 1.5 sacks, said. “He was a guy where you can’t just let him sit back there because they also got a lot of skill guys in the back end that can get open. We couldn’t allow them in the backend to have to cover all day, all down. We just 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.”

Patriots defensive backs also covered well in the game. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore let up just four catches on six targets for 50 yards with an interception and two pass breakups while shadowing top wideout DeAndre Hopkins (Gilmore also was charged with two holding penalties on Hopkins). Slot cornerback Jonathan Jones didn’t allow a catch on three targets and had two pass breakups. No other defensive player allowed more than 27 yards in coverage.

“It’s a combination between rush and coverage,” defensive end Deatrich Wise Jr., who had 1.5 sacks, said. “Coach always says we have to have the rush and coverage marry, so big plays happen. If the receivers are covered, and we create pressure on the quarterback, then something’s going to happen, either an interception or a PBU or a sack. Something will happen. That’s what we like to do.”

The Patriots came away with three sacks, two turnovers and six pass breakups. It was a happy marriage Sunday afternoon.

Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images