- Field Yates, ESPN Insider
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The Patriots broke out racquetball paddles last week during practice to help simulate the length and disruptiveness of Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, who entered the game with an AFC-best 16.5 sacks in just 12 games.
After becoming the first team to hold Watt without a sack, tackle for loss or pass defensed in the same game in 2012, it would appear that the practice habits paid off for the Patriots.
Though Watt was able to force a fumble of running back Danny Woodhead (which was recovered in the end zone for a touchdown by receiver Brandon Lloyd) and also generated three hits on quarterback Tom Brady, the team did well to prevent him from making the kind of game-changing plays (sacks, tipped passes for interceptions) that have vaulted him into the discussion for the league's Defensive Player of the Year award.
The execution can be traced back, at least in part, to a strong week of practice.
Head coach Bill Belichick stressed the importance of practice during a Tuesday afternoon conference call.
"Every person on our team has a very important role. Whether it's the starting quarterback or a practice squad player or trainers, video people. Everybody. Everybody across the board has a very important job and they're integral to the overall performance and quality of the team," Belichick said.
"And certainly the practice is, of all the things we do -- we can watch film, we can have meetings, we can talk about stuff, we can look at diagrams and all that -- but of all the things that we do, the most important thing is practice. That's our one chance to really go out there and execute plays as close to what its going to be like in the game as we can simulate.
"Again, we can do a lot of other things that are important in our preparation, but that's the one that comes the closest to trying to replicate what we think we're going to get from our opponent or looks or personnel match ups or techniques that they use or whatever it is, it's critical to our preparation."
That preparation led to an effort in stopping Watt that pleased offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
"Our guys I thought battled him," McDaniels said of the line's performance against Watt. "Certainly he made some plays and really got some pressure put on us, and we could have done some things better, but I thought there were a number of linemen who ended up blocking him throughout the course of the game, because he wasn't just always on the right. He was on the left some, he was on the right inside, outside.
"We had a number of different players that had to step in and stay in to block him, and I thought they all gave great effort, were competitive, and really that's the plan," McDaniels continued. "They've got a good player, we've got to stand up and play against him. We've got to play hard, and the guys tried to do a really good job of keeping him out of the middle of the pocket. But again, he's a great player and certainly found a way to have some production last night as well."
Belichick shared McDaniels' praise of the protection, while also citing the impact that wide receivers being able to get open quickly against man coverage played in allowing quarterback Tom Brady to get rid of the football quickly.
"Yeah, I thought the offensive line, really it was a combination of -- the passing game was a combination of several things: the offensive line did a good job, but also the receivers got open," Belichick said. "Tom didn't have to hold the ball, and the receivers, tight ends, backs, I thought overall in the passing game we faced a lot of man coverage last night and we did a good job of getting open quickly so that we didn't have to hold the ball."