Kyle Van Noy

Where have Patriots LBs improved? Look at covering pass-catching backs

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Where have Patriots LBs improved? Look at covering pass-catching backs

Third quarter, Patriots versus the Raiders. Elandon Roberts lined up in the middle of the defense, the only off-the-ball linebacker on this second-down play from midfield. Roberts looked intently into the Oakland backfield, trying to decipher where quarterback Derek Carr would go on the play. 

At the snap of the ball, Carr released his running back, Jalen Richard, to the right of the formation. With the Pats playing man-to-man, Roberts had to hurry to cover the quicker, faster Richard. The second-year pro also had to skirt around a slight pick by wide receiver Amari Cooper. Successfully navigating that landmine, Roberts went stride for stride with Richard. 

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Carr still identified that as the matchup to exploit but the throw clanged off the back of Roberts’ helmet. Not the result Carr was looking for, and despite the ugliness at the tail end of the play, yet another sign of the Pats improving in an area that early in the season had been an issue.

“It's certainly a good observation,” said defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. “That's part of the process as you go through the year and understanding your opponents and what they like to do from the standpoint of plays. So certainly on that particular play where it might be a situation where they're trying to pick him or get him in a bad coverage matchup and he did a good job of getting through it.”

Covering running backs coming out of the backfield is not something that the Pats have been particularly adept at over the years. Roberts, especially, seemed lost in those spots in his rookie season. But with Dont’a Hightower lost for the season, the Pats have had to spread out some of those responsibilities and Roberts, 23, the University of Houston product, is growing in that department.

“[He's] someone that works really hard to know where his help is in both situations whether it's leveraging a run play or leveraging a pass play,” complimented Patricia. “He's really trying to learn and understand that at a much higher level which he's really trying to do a good job of.”

It wasn’t just that play and it wasn’t just Roberts. In the opening quarter, Kyle Van Noy swarmed Richard in the right flat, limiting the shifty back to just four yards. Later, Trevor Reilly quickly snuffed out a swing pass to Richard. Bill Belichick - like Patricia - has taken notice.

“I think that’s a very competitive group of players on our team,” Belichick said. “So again, just trying to work on our fundamentals, and individual techniques, and try to work each week on our opponent, and their tendencies, the way they do things to match it up against. Those guys work hard at both of those areas.”

That work will need to continue. The Pats will get two doses in three weeks of Miami running back Damien Williams, who in limited snaps has made an impact as a receiver. There’s also Le’Veon Bell in Pittsburgh, the skilled trio of Bilal Powell, Matt Forte and Elijah McGuire for the Jets and LeSean McCoy in Buffalo. In other words, no resting our recent success.

“We're obviously going to look at the other aspect of it too and say, 'Well this is where we think we need to improve and this is where we think we need to make sure that we have this tightened up because this showed up,'" Patricia said. "Whether or not – it could be a bad situation for us whether it's just a – maybe it's a particular look that offense gives us or a particular defensive call.

That no doubt earns a nod from the head coach, who never believes what’s good is good enough.

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Flowers' sacks may be down but his impact isn't

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Flowers' sacks may be down but his impact isn't

FOXBORO - Trey Flowers appeared on the fast track to stardom in the second half of last season and right on through the playoffs. He spent about as much time in opposing backfields as the skill position players on those teams. 

Starting Week 8 at Buffalo, the defensive end racked up 9 1/2 sacks in the Patriots final dozen games, including 2 1/2 in the dramatic Super Bowl victory over Atlanta.

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Even with the departure of fellow edge rushers Jabaal Sheard, Chris Long and Rob Ninkovich, Flowers picked up right where he left off starting this season, dropping Alex Smith a pair of times in the opener versus Kansas City. However, since then, the soft-spoken Alabama native has recorded just 1 1/2 sacks and has actually been shut out in that category over the past three games. But don’t for a second think Flowers isn’t producing.

Kyle Van Noy credited Flowers for a couple of important penetrations in the Sunday night showdown with Atlanta and Adam Butler said his first ever NFL sack was a direct result of all the attention devoted to Flowers.

“I’m just trying to do whatever I can to help us win,” said Flowers. “Whatever the coaches ask, whatever the defense calls for, that’s what I’ll do.”

The Pats have asked for Flowers to fill a variety of roles this year up and down the line. Line up over the center? Sure. Head up on the guard? Why not? 3 technique? 5? 7? 9? If there’s a number for it, and a need, Flowers has done it. Maybe that’s been to his detriment and caused the sack shortage, but Flowers wouldn’t be there if he couldn’t handle it.

“Well, Trey's done some things like that for us in the past; not as much as he has this year,” said Bill Belichick. “This year we've had some different situations at the defensive end position at various points in time. Trey has a lot of experience or the most experience of our defensive linemen. He's also athletic and can handle a degree of versatility in our responsibilities. I’m not sure that’s always the best thing for him, but sometimes he’s the best we have at it. He does a good job and works hard at it and does what’s best for the team. One of the things you love about Trey is how committed he is to the team and how willing he is to do whatever it takes, whatever we need him to do and he does a pretty good job of it.”

Obviously, part of Flowers success is because of his physical abilities. At 6-2, 268 pounds, he has long arms, excellent power and short area quickness in addition to a motor that’s always running no matter where he lines up. But there are plenty of players in this league with measurables equal to or better than Flowers. That’s where the work ethic - he’s notorious for working on his craft long after practice and meetings are over - and his football smarts come into play. 

“Obviously I’ve been in the system,” he said. “I’m going on my third year, understanding what the coaches expect, how they want to attack certain quarterbacks, certain offenses. That time spent will help you out going into the game, knowing what they [coaches] want to do.”

Flowers says that maybe you don’t pick up a tendency or a call or a key right away but by continuing to work at it, continuing to study, you can pick up one or two things that may change the way a series goes or even a game. That’s enough for him.

“If I can call something to get us in the right position to make plays or to make a play myself, that’s where that work comes in.”

That extra effort is nothing new. Flowers has been the same guy since he walked into the building following the 2015 draft, where the Pats selected him in the fourth round.

“First and foremost what stands out about Trey is his work ethic and his approach to how he handles himself as a professional and to getting better,” said defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. “The classroom is the same. For him, I think it's something that he works extremely hard at and for a guy that can do a couple different things for us, his understanding of what we do, I think it's along the natural progression. There's not that many guys that just come in and right away, on the whole, if you look at everybody, that just play all the snaps immediately. So, he's a guy that falls into that category. Someone that's worked really hard to try to earn himself some play time on the field and has shown the consistency to be out there as much as we can get him out there and put him in those positions.”

Considering the Pats defensive issues, and availability issues up in general for the front seven, Flowers has been a rock. 

He’s played the fourth-most snaps of any player on the defense and has been one of the few to grade out positively week in and week out on Pro Football Focus. So while the sack numbers are down, Flowers remains one of the foundational pieces of a unit that was improving before the bye. 

It's a defense that believes it has all the pieces in place to make a long run into January and February. Freeing up Flowers will help the cause but his willingness to sacrifice himself and his stats for the better of the team should tell you all you need to know about the player and his importance for the 2017-18 Patriots. That makes him a star in the Patriots world and that - for now - is more than enough for Flowers.