Patriots

One of a kind: Patriot teammates say Trey Flowers is a rare talent

One of a kind: Patriot teammates say Trey Flowers is a rare talent

FOXBORO -- Trey Flowers looked to the ceiling, laughed a sheepish laugh, and shook his head. He couldn't believe it.

It was bad enough for Flowers that the CBS broadcast team had announced to its national audience that Patriots players had nicknamed him "Technique." But somehow it had been revealed that teammates also occasionally refer to him as "the G.O.A.T.," as in the greatest of all time.

"Aw, man," Flowers said, embarrassed that label made its way back to a reporter. "I just let it roll off and keep working."

RELATED Flowers' ranked high on 2017 "20 Under 25" list

Flowers is a quiet 23-year-old from Huntsville, Alabama who likes to spend extra time in the trainers room, usually with his headphones on, keeping to himself. But what he's accomplished on the field in his second year as a pro has been so impressive that it has invited waves of compliments -- including over-the-top monikers -- from those who watch him on a daily basis.

"We're trying to just have fun with that guy," said corner Logan Ryan. "He's not going to say much about himself so we'll throw some wild nicknames on him and see if he comes out of his shell."

'HE'S THE ONLY ONE I'VE EVER MET LIKE THAT'

Patriots players like to tease Flowers because he's become something of a reluctant teacher's pet. Highlighted in meetings and practices, held up by coaches as the model for how certain plays should be carried out, he was jokingly dubbed "Technique," and occasionally, "the G.O.A.T." 

Jokes aside, the 6-foot-2, 265-pounder's unique skill set and unrelenting effort this season -- his first season as a regular contributor -- have left even veteran teammates in awe.

"He's able to stand-up double teams, split 'em, and still make plays," said 10-year veteran Alan Branch. "I honestly haven't seen too many players with the size he is who can defend the run and the pass on the inside like him. He's the only one I've ever met like that."

Flowers was drafted in the fourth round out of Arkansas in 2015 as an undersized but dogged defensive end. Now, after spending almost the entirety of his rookie season on injured reserve, he's made an eye-opening impact lined up at just about every position on the defensive line, particularly during the second half of the season.

He's set the edge as a defensive end. He's used his strength to hold up at the point of attack in goal-line packages. And his ability to pass-rush from the interior has blown his teammates away.

Using his quickness advantage over heavier-footed centers and guards, as well as 34.25-inch arms that help him create leverage, Flowers led the Patriots in sacks (7.0) and quarterback hits (9) this season. He was also third on the team in quarterback hurries (19), according to Pro Football Focus.

All of his sacks have come since Week 8, and after the Week 9 bye his playing time reflected his value to the Patriots defense. During the second half of the season, Flowers' workload of 40.6 snaps per game was more than that of Chris Long (36.0), Rob Ninkovich (34.1) and Jabaal Sheard (27.3).

"I think he has a really good combination of length and strength and quickness," Long said. "He's able to play like he's 300 pounds, but he's not 300 pounds. It gives him versatility, and he has a really good feel for where people are leaning.

"He's a really smart player. He's one of the smartest players on our defense and one of the best players, if not the best player, on our defense."

Despite his eye-opening numbers and his recent bump in playing time, Flowers did not have the overall snap count (578 total plays) to accumulate some of the statistics that would earn him a Pro Bowl nod or All-Pro consideration. But, on a per-snap basis, he has been remarkably efficient.

For example, he's averaging one quarterback pressure (a sack, hit or hurry) for every 16 snaps played, per PFF. Ndamukong Suh (one pressure every 17 snaps), Leonard Williams (16) and Calais Campbell (15) -- all of whom do the majority of their pass-rushing from the interior -- are in a similar range. 

Flowers isn't the full-time force those players are, yet the point remains: When he's out there, he's a problem.

"I think sometimes it takes stats for people that are just kind of watching to wake up to somebody's abilities," Long said. "Now he's got the production to kind of validate what's easy for guys to see that work with him everyday, which is his really unique skill set, great work ethic and really good production. 

"To be rushing from the inside like that and have those numbers, I mean, look around the league. That's tough to come by."

'I SAID: THIS GUY'S GOT SOME TOOLS'

Flowers played in just one regular-season game as a rookie before going on season-ending IR with a shoulder injury. Until this season, he was mostly known for being the guy who admitted he fell in love with football by watching Adam Sandler's character in the movie Waterboy.

But Flowers' talent was evident to some well before he had an opportunity to contribute in regular-season action. It didn't take much.

In the first quarter of his first preseason game as a pro, Flowers worked off the right edge, slapped down the hands of Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari -- who was recently named a Second-Team All-Pro -- and smothered Aaron Rodgers for a sack.

The play still sticks out to veteran defensive end Rob Ninkovich. 

"I think that when you've been around football for many, many years you can just see things that certain guys are able to do," Ninkovich said. "And you can kind of quickly analyze, 'Oh this guy's got some skills that are really going to help him.' . . . 

"The first few days I was around him, I said, 'This guy's got some tools. He's going to be a good player.' On top of that, his work ethic and the way he comes into work everyday, that helps guys that have some skill set to let that continue to grow and get better and better."

Flowers didn't see a great deal of time on the interior in college, but the Patriots saw him rush from the inside in a win over Louisiana State in 2014 when he picked up a sack while lined up over the right guard

Intrigued, at Patriots rookie minicamp last year the coaching staff tried him on the inside and he embraced it. He stayed late at practice. He tried to carry out every instruction he received from defensive line coach Brendan Daly.

"They put me in positions," Flowers said, "where I could get experience with that. Get the feel of the game. Try to understand it and create an arsenal of moves."

After more than a year of sharpening his skills, Flowers has had the opportunity to put his full repertoire of inside moves on display.

Against the Broncos in Week 15, Flowers lined up as a nose tackle on center Matt Paradis. On the snap, Flowers got his hands into Paradis' chest and ripped Paradis forward.

"We call him 'Technique' for a reason," Branch said.

Like a bouncer grabbing the lapels of an unruly patron, Flowers controlled Paradis by the chest plate on his shoulder pads and got PFF's highest-graded center this season on the ground.

"Obviously I can't push everybody around just because of the size difference," Flowers explained, "so you have to use their momentum against them sometimes." 

With some help from linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who crashed down to occupy the right guard, Flowers had a clear lane into quarterback Trevor Siemian for the sack. 

"He's just really good at using his hands, using his arms, using his leverage. All those things work together," Ninkovich said. "If you're a defensive lineman, you gotta have a bunch of things and he's got them.

"He's got great leverage. He knows when to counter and use the opponent's weight to his advantage. He really has a great feel for it. I'm trying to learn from him."

The Patriots were able to run a similar play when they hosted the Ravens the week prior. This time it was Hightower who helped clear a lane for Flowers. 

When Flowers got off of his initial block on the nose, he was able to change direction and gather himself quickly enough to swarm Joe Flacco before the ball came out. 

"We’re able to do a lot of different things with him in there," said Hightower. "He’s kind of a smaller-build guy, but he plays a lot bigger than that. [You saw] that in the first three or four plays in the Miami game."

The Miami game. Flowers may have saved the best performance of his breakout season for last. He didn't record a sack in the regular-season finale, but he had two quarterback hits that led to incompletions, and he posted four stuffed-runs.

One of those stuffs came when he was aligned over left guard Laremy Tunsil, the 13th overall pick in last year's draft.

The Dolphins tried to run a stretch play to the offensive left side of the formation. As Flowers flowed with the line, he saw what was developing in front of him and hurried to put a stop to it. 

With his left hand, he grabbed Tunsil's left shoulder pad and stuck his right cleat in the ground, preventing himself from being ejected from the play as it was designed. Knifing into the backfield, Flowers tackled running back Jay Ajayi for no gain. 

Vision. Strength. Length. Balance. Technique. It was all there.

Practice-squad defensive tackle Darius Kilgo resides at a locker a few stalls down from Flowers in the Patriots locker room. As a member of the Broncos for parts of the last two years before he was claimed by the Patriots in November, Kilgo had the chance to study big-name interior defenders like Malik Jackson (now in Jacksonville) and Derek Wolfe up close.

Even with that background, what Flowers does on film stands out.

"For a guy his size to be able to go in there and do that," Kilgo said, "is unbelievable."

'HE DOESN'T STAY BLOCKED'

Flowers was one of the biggest reasons why the Patriots jumped from 28th in the league in sacks after eight weeks to 16th by season's end. He led the team as it racked up 21 sacks in the second half of the season under the guidance of Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. 

Whatever pass-rush success the Patriots find in the postseason could hinge on the play of their second-year standout on the interior.

"He’s been very productive for us in there," Belichick said, "has caused a lot of pressures, and his penetration in the middle of the pocket a lot of times opens things up for one of the other defensive tackles or defensive ends that wrap around into the space that he has created with that penetration. So it’s not just the plays that he makes, but he creates some for his teammates, too."

Flowers has become a lose-lose proposition for opposing offenses, it seems: Either focus your attention on him and allow others to make plays, or divvy up your resources and watch him embarrass you one-on-one.

Would you rather be the Jets, who allowed a Chris Long strip sack late in the fourth quarter of a Week 12 loss while Flowers was doubled inside? Or would you rather be the Broncos, who allowed left guard Max Garcia and right tackle Donald Stephenson (below) to be abused by Flowers swim moves one-on-one?

Patriots offensive linemen know what it's like. They've been faced with the Flowers conundrum on a daily basis since training camp. 

"When you bring him up, the first word that comes to mind is relentless," said rookie left guard Joe Thuney. "He's always trying to get off the block, always trying to get around you. You have to stay locked in and focused on working together for the whole play when you're blocking him. He represents a pretty unique challenge."

"Trey's one of those guys who just doesn't stay blocked," said right guard Shaq Mason, before happily steering a reporter to center David Andrews, who has the misfortune of being matched up with Flowers more often than anyone else during workouts on the fields behind Gillette Stadium. 

"His movement skills are very good," Andrews explained. "He's got a lot of good pass-rush moves, and he does a good job of working. He doesn't stay blocked. That's the thing, he always works to stay uncovered."

The living embodiment of Bobby Boucher's approach with a technician's polish, national attention was coming one way or another for Flowers. It just so happens that his rise to prominence has come with nicknames that make him squirm. At the very least, he acknowledged, they may be a sign that he's doing the right things at this stage of his young career.

As if his numbers weren't enough.

"I'm intrinsically motivated anyway," he said. "But any time you can get guys to let you know you're doing good, I guess it's pretty cool."

Patriots defense steps up in gotta-have-it situations vs. Falcons

Patriots defense steps up in gotta-have-it situations vs. Falcons

FOXBORO -- It wasn't that long ago that it felt like the Patriots couldn't get off the field on third down. Last week against the Jets, during their first drive, the Patriots defense put quarterback Josh McCown in four third-down scenarios . . . and he converted on all four. The last was a short touchdown pass to put New England in an early hole. 

Sunday night's 23-7 win over the Falcons was a different story. Atlanta went 2-for-9 on its third-down chances at Gillette Stadium and 1-for-3 on fourth down. In a game where the Patriots were dominating the time of possession (they ended up controlling the football for 34:05), the Falcons were desperate to keep their offense on the field.

They couldn't. 

"We made a lot of plays when we needed to make them," said Bill Belichick. "Red area, third down, some critical situations, goal line. We didn’t make all of the plays, but when big plays came up we were able to make those plays. Those are big stops for us.

"Again, give the players credit. They’re covering good receivers. They’re playing against a good offensive team, a good quarterback, good system, good offensive line. They just really competed with them all the way through. When those plays needed to be made we stepped up and we were able to make most of them."

Two of Atlanta's first three drives were three-and-outs. On their fourth series, late in the second quarter and down 10-0, they opted to go for it on fourth-and-six from the Patriots 47-yard line.

The Falcons had plenty of time to think it over since the two-minute warning came down following their third-down play. Still, judging by the play call, they felt their best shot at picking up the necessary yardage was to attack Patriots corner Jonathan Jones in one-on-one coverage during a Mohamed Sanu corner route. Matt Ryan overthrew his target and the Patriots took over, driving the field and scoring in the half's final seconds. 

PATRIOTS 23, FALCONS 7

"They were playing aggressive tonight, as they should," said special-teams captain Matthew Slater. "They have great weapons over there and a great quarterback in Matt Ryan, and the list goes on with the guys they've got. They had a lot of confidence in going for it."

But going for it on fourth down so early in the game caught some Patriots players off-guard. They had their punt-return team on the field and ready to go but had to make a late switch in order to be ready for the pass play. 

The Falcons converted one fourth down, their first, on their second drive of the night when Ryan scrambled for nine on fourth-and-seven. But they failed their next two, and some Patriots players acknowledged the aggressiveness of their opponents was heaed-scratching. 

"It kind of surprised us at some point," Trey Flowers said. "They had to make a play and they wanted to make a play, so they figured it was the right opportunity to try to make it. We had to play four downs."

"That just showed you how big they thought this game was, too," Duron Harmon said. "They wanted to win and keep their offense out there because they felt like the offense gave them a good chance to win. It’s a testament to what we did. Even when they got it on the first fourth down, we kept them out of the end zone. We played really good and didn’t give up any points. When they got in the red zone, we made it really hard for them to score. That’s what we need to continue to do and continue to build on this performance."

The Patriots got their second fourth-down stop early in the fourth quarter -- a gut-punch for a Falcons offense that at the time was trailing, 20-0. On third down, Malcolm Butler broke up a goal-line pass intended for Julio Jones. On fourth, Atlanta attempted an end-around run with speedy wideout Taylor Gabriel that was snuffed out quickly by Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy. The play lost five yards and got the Patriots started on a 74-yard field-goal drive.

"I thought we competed and made them earn every yard," Devin McCourty said. "When you go against good teams, that’s what you have to do. We made enough plays. We played really well on third down, which we talked about always helps us when we play well on third down. And then tonight happened to be where we had to play plays on fourth down, and I thought we handled that well."

It was certainly better than it had been at times earlier this season. For the Patriots -- without corners Eric Rowe and Stephon Gilmore -- to hold the reigning MVP and his teammates to a 25 percent conversion rate on third and fourth downs? That's an authoritative step in the right direction. 

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'Man, why do we continue to do this?' Patriots FG block work finally pays off

'Man, why do we continue to do this?' Patriots FG block work finally pays off

FOXBORO -- Stay low. Drive off the tight end's inside shoulder. And whatever you do, keep your feet. You don't want to be falling into kicker and picking up a penalty. 

Those were the kinds of things that were bouncing around somewhere in Cassius Marsh's subconscious as he lined up to try to block Falcons kicker Matt Bryant's field-goal attempt from 37 yards away at the end of the first quarter. Swimming past his blocker off the snap, Marsh got both arms extended and into the path of Bryant's kick, knocking it down and giving his team a boost. 

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"Guys work hard on that every week," Bill Belichick said after his team's 23-7 win. "Cassius has gotten some opportunities in practice. It’s hard to block Steve [Gostkowski]. Steve gets good height on the ball, gets the ball off quickly. I think this one with not quite as much height maybe as Steve's ball, or at least what Steve's balls were in practice, Cassius got a hand on it. 

"It was a big play for us because, again, we worked so hard on that and that’s everybody across the board. That’s all 11 guys, not just the guy that blocks it. The other guys have to do their job and if they block Cassius and take him away then that gives somebody else an opportunity so we never know how that’s going to go. We just want everybody to come hard and do their job right and wherever the opening is it is. That was a big play for us . . . 

"You can see the whole team – we were all excited. Sideline, players, guys on the field. That was a big moment for us. Our special teams units work very hard. They take a lot of pride in their job. The return teams, the coverage teams, the field goal and the field goal block team. It’s good to see that hard work pay off in a big play like that."

It was a big enough play that it earned Marsh a high-five from his coach. Marsh laughed about his reception on the sideline, remembering that the last time he got that kind of recognition from Belichick it came after a Week 4 sack.

"That's pretty much it that I can remember," Marsh said, beaming. "He only really smiles in situations like that so you've gotta cherish those moments."

The Patriots recovered at their own 26-yard line and embarked on an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to get them on the scoreboard.

"With the defense playing as well as they were, to be able to preserve the shutout at the time was big," said special teams captain Matthew Slater. "Those are huge momentum plays when you're able to block a kick. It's not a traditional play that happens every game. Huge play. A UCLA guy stepping up, who would've thought? 

"You gotta tip your hat to those guys because they coach that, they work that and sometimes it seems like, 'Man, why do we continue to do this?' But it paid off for us tonight. You tip your cap to not only Cash but the rest of the guys on that unit." 

While Marsh's block was the highlight, it was a strong night overall for New England's special teams units. Every Falcons drive started inside their own 30-yard line, and Gostkowski had kicks returned to the 12, 19 and 18 before they were stopped.

Slater called it the most complementary game the Patriots played all season. Offense, defense, special teams. They all worked together to make Sunday perhaps their most dominating performance of the year. 

"That's the effort that we've been looking for and striving for all year," Slater said. "I think that's a good starting point for us. Lot of football left. Nine games left so we're going to have to continue to do it and be consistent week in and week out."

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