Kyle Van Noy

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.

How was Patriots defense able to pick up the slack with Hightower out?

How was Patriots defense able to pick up the slack with Hightower out?

FOXBORO -- When Melvin Gordon sprinted 87 yards for a touchdown on the second Chargers drive of the game, it would have been fair to wonder: Is this what it's going to look like without Dont'a Hightower?

One of the best run defenders on the Patriots and arguably their most important communicator in the front-seven, Hightower's absence figured to show up in certain situations with Los Angeles in town. But for it to happen so quickly? And with such immediate results? 

It was alarming. 

But instead of that single play foreshadowing a calamitous drop-off for Bill Belichick's defense, it was the outlier. The Patriots allowed 157 yards rushing on 21 attempts in their 21-13 win on Sunday, meaning that on all carries other than Gordon's long jaunt, the hosts allowed 3.5 yards per carry.

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"Outside of that one big one," Alan Branch said, "we did a decent job . . . It's just hard to see that number and say you had a good game stopping the run even though they got a lot of it in one big chunk. But it felt pretty good at times."

More than a third (eight) of Chargers carries went for two yards or fewer as Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts, Jordan Richards and Cassius Marsh all came up with stuffs near or behind the line of scrimmage. 

"We knew they were going to try to come out and run the ball, especially with the conditions the way they were," David Harris said. "They have a good back over there in Melvin Gordon. They did hit us for that big run, but I think after that we settled down and relaxed and played good Patriot defense." 

"We had a group of guys," Van Noy said, "that needed to step up, including myself, and I thought we did that today."

It was Van Noy (56 snaps) who played a role that most closely resembled Hightower's. There were times when he came off the edge in run support or as a pass-rusher, leaving the middle of the field to Elandon Roberts (40 snaps after missing Week 7 with an ankle injury) and Harris (21 snaps). During others, it was Van Noy helping to set the defense. 

Whichever linebacker was in there -- Marquis Flowers (eight snaps) and Trevor Reilly (three) saw time in the defense as well -- the communication seemed to be relatively smooth. 

Was it perfect? They admitted it was not. But for their teammates up front, there wasn't a noticeable difference in that regard with Hightower out. 

"It didn't skip a beat," Deatrich Wise said. "Those guys really picked it up and communicated and continued to over-communicate on the field. High being out sucked, but there was no drop-off in the communication."

"They did well," Branch said of the 'backers behind him. "They did real well. Basically without skipping a beat, they got all the front where we needed to go. They let us know what the play was and all the checks and everything. I don't think we missed a step on that."

Where the Patriots may miss Hightower's presence most is in his big-play ability, particularly at the ends of games. It seems as though he has a knack for the key moment, as he did in Super Bowl LI, and there are few who can replicate what he can off the edge when he's healthy. 

While the Patriots only picked up one sack on the day thanks to a Philip Rivers fumble that lost the Chargers 20 yards, they did come up with some key pressures late. 

Wise got in for one hit during the game's final drive, and he pressured Rivers on two other occasions. His final push of the pocket may have helped force Rivers into a quicker throw than he would've liked. It was picked by Jonathan Jones at the goal line to end the game. 

Without both Hightower and defensive tackle Malcom Brown, the Patriots defense was able to communicate reasonably well, stop the run when it needed to, and pick up critical pressures late in the game. What's that say about Bill Belichick's defense? 

"What it says is that when people go down, it allows people to step up," Wise said. "And when they step up, good things happen. It sucks not having Maclom and High, but the people behind them had to step up and they did."

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