The last time the Patriots had a defensive lineman play over 78 percent of the defensive snaps was back in the 2015 season.
New England had two defensive ends surpass the threshold eight seasons ago, but since then, the Pats have typically used a rotation to keep their defensive linemen fresh and in hyper-specific roles.
In last week's loss to the Ravens, defensive end Deatrich Wise became the first Patriot to record three sacks in a game since one of those two full-timers in the 2015 season, Chandler Jones, who had a three-sack performance against the Bills also in late September.
After rotating in as primarily a situational pass-rusher in his first five seasons, Wise has been on the field for 82.1 percent of New England's defensive snaps through three games. According to Pro Football Focus, Wise is the second-highest graded Patriot defender (80.9), leads the team in pass-rush win rate on true pass sets (32.3%), and has a team-high nine run stops.
By developing into a more well-rounded player, Wise is now an every-down defender and is blossoming into a difference maker. The Pats defensive end who routinely beats all his teammates to the facility during the week was also named a team captain this season.
"Being disruptive on the field, that's what he's doing. It's always great to see guys who work so hard, and you know they put in the work, have success. It's always great to see that," Patriots defensive line coach DeMarcus Covington said earlier this week.
"He does a good job in all areas. Film study, on the practice field, in the classroom, with his teammates, recovery, and taking care of his body. He does all the necessary stuff to be his best on game day. Since he came in as a rookie, he has been a first in the building, last guy to leave, first guy to the practice field, last guy to leave the practice field. That's who he is, that's in his DNA, and anyone you ask will say that's Deatrich Wise."
As a tone-setter for the Patriots defense, Wise is embracing his role as a leader and full-time contributor in his sixth season with the team.
"It's a great honor to be named captain. I've felt like I've been a leader with or without the captain 'C' on my chest. It's always been one of those things that I've taken pride in being a voice if I need to or being able to pull guys to the side. I am honored to be named captain for this team."
"I'm always grateful for the opportunity when I'm on the field. I don't really think about snap counts or anything else like that. I do a good job of staying conditioned during the offseason, so any idea for X amount of plays doesn't bother me," Wise told Patriots.com.
Although Wise didn't make any significant changes to his offseason regiment, he did spend time training with Pro Football Hall of Famer Warren Sapp. The two were in the same area and connected for some D-Line training.
"It was cool. We just worked on pass rush moves and getting the hands and feet fast. I feel like it paid off," Wise said of his time working with Sapp, who was very complimentary of the Pats defensive lineman. "It's good to hear that. It's cool coming from a guy of his stature."
At 6-foot-5, Wise's high-cut frame has led to issues in the past with pad level and leveraging blocks in the running game. But improving his play recognition and block identification has helped him be a more active contributor against the run. As a result, he has been on the field for 75 percent of the opponents rushing attempts through three games. Last season, Wise only played on 53 percent of running downs.
"One of those things that goes through my head is once I hear the call, I know where everybody is on the field, and then I look at the backfield, and once I know where they are aligned, I can pretty much figure out what plays next. It's all extinct," the 28-year-old said.
As is the case in most areas of the team, knowing the roles of the entire defense helps players understand what their parameters are on a given play.
For example, the Patriots align in a six-man box with a disguised post-snap rotation by their safeties in the works. The lighter box might suggest to the defensive front that they'll need to get penetration into the backfield if it's a running play. When Steelers left guard Kevin Dotson aggressively fires out of his stance to block Wise, the Pats D-End uses a quick swim move to shed Dotson and make the play at the line of scrimmage.
Last week, Wise showed off that improved play recognition when the Ravens threw a wrinkle at New England's defense. This time, the Ravens motion speedy receiver Devin Duvernay into the backfield with Lamar Jackson and fullback Patrick Ricard. Baltimore hands the ball off to Duvernay on an outside zone scheme, and Wise uses his length and hand power to press rookie tackle Daniel Faalele into the backfield and set the edge of the defense resulting in a four-yard loss.
Along with his improvements as a run defender, Wise's production as a pass-rusher has remained consistent and his preparation to identify specific things comes into play there too.
On his strip-sack of Tua Tagovailoa back in the season-opener, the Pats defensive end picked up on a tendency of Dolphins right guard Robert Hunt on film.
"Watching film, I knew he was a two-hand puncher. Once I got off the ball, I saw the hands coming, so I swiped, got vertical, and then I chased Tua down for a little bit and got the ball out."
Since the Patriots drafted him in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL Draft, Wise's physical tools and length have stood out in spurts, but now the mental side of the game is also clicking.
"Every year he has been in our program and our system, he's always grown in some type of way. This year, he's able to help us out, especially early on in the season, at a high level. Each year he finds a way to take his game to the next level, which is great for our football team," Covington said of Wise.
In a defensive system that stresses keeping the quarterback in the pocket, the six-year pro finds that balance between applying pressure and playing within his rules.
"That's what he [head coach Bill Belichick] does. That's what he tells us to do. Contain the quarterback, make sure he doesn't get out [of the pocket], get him off his spot. So it's not just containing and sitting there and looking at his eyes, but it's also applying pressure, so he gets uncomfortable."
"It's an art. Just like painting a picture, you have to make sure you paint the picture so that it comes out the way you want to, so when you rush, you have to make sure you stay within your rush materials and your rush lanes. So you gotta do what you have to do to make sure that you don't lose containment but also apply pressure," Wise explained.
Based on the first three games of the season, the Patriots are pleased with the picture Wise is painting for a defense that needs down-to-down.