FOXBORO -- When I caught up with Adrian Clayborn in the Patriots locker room just before players took off for a three-day break during their bye week, he was in good spirits. He was looking forward to being able to show what he can do when the playoffs rolled around.
It's not that often you get to the postseason, he said.
"Well," he corrected himself, remembering where he was. "It is for these guys."
Clayborn isn't exactly hitting the Divisional Round with much momentum. Quite the opposite. He was a healthy scratch each of the final two weeks of the regular season.
He shrugged when I asked him if there was anything, in particular, he'd been told he needed to do in order to wind up in uniform on game days. Those final two games of the regular season are the only two he missed in 2018.
Whether he didn't know or wasn't willing to share the reasons for why he didn't play, his production provides us with a relatively clear explanation. He's recorded one tackle in his past five games. He does not have a sack in that span, though according to Pro Football Focus he has eight quarterback hurries and two quarterback hits.
The Patriots gave Clayborn a two-year deal worth $10 million with $5.5M guaranteed in the offseason. He has 2.5 sacks this year, which is fifth on the team, one half-sack ahead of John Simon, who was signed in late September. He's made 11 tackles.
Put the tackle number aside for a moment because Clayborn's role in New England isn't as a first or second-down edge-setter. He's a sub rusher. He's supposed to get after the quarterback.
But as a pass-rusher, at times it's seemed as though Clayborn has not been able to leave his days in Atlanta behind him. The Falcons aren't a two-gap scheme like the Patriots. Rushers there are encouraged to get up the field with speed. With the Patriots, those types of pass-rush reps can get you benched, as they open up running lanes for quarterbacks to extend plays or worse.
Just before the Patriots beat the Packers in Week 9, I spoke with defensive line coach Brendan Daly about Clayborn's progress adapting to a new scheme.
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"Of all the guys we've had come in over the years from other places, that transition is always difficult. It's never easy," Daly said. "Particularly for veteran guys that have been at other places. For whatever reason it may be. It's never easy.
"I would say he's done as good a job as anybody we've had in making that transition. He is a high-character guy. He's willing to do whatever it is he's asked to do. He jumps in. He asks great questions. He's been a lot of fun to have."
When it came to getting up the field -- even behind the QB at times, a cardinal sin in the Patriots defense -- Daly said he felt as though Clayborn was improving.
"There's definitely been progress there with him," Daly explained. "Defensive linemen, inherently, they don't want any line of scrimmage communication. They want to be able to put their hand down on the ground, pin their ears back and come off the ball as fast as they possibly can and run around the edge to get to the quarterback. That's what they want to do.
"It's great when it works out. That's good. Great. There's a little more to playing the position than that. Some teams have a philosophy of that's how they play. Not that that's right or wrong. It's different. I'd say he's done a very good job of working through that."
That Packers game ended up being Clayborn's best of the season, arguably. The Patriots employed their "crush rush" style of pass rush to keep Aaron Rodgers in the pocket, and it worked. Even on the few occasions when Rodgers got outside, Clayborn was among those hustling after him and limiting the QB's time to throw. Clayborn finished with a sack and three hurries.
Since then, he's been relatively silent. Clayborn played just nine snaps the following week when the Titans played with a lead and weren't in many obvious passing situations. And his two quarterback hits from that point on have come over the course of 87 snaps.
In terms of overall quarterback pressures, Clayborn is still second on the team behind only Trey Flowers, per Pro Football Focus. And against the Chargers this weekend, the Patriots could use an aggressive rusher, particularly since Philip Rivers is not a real threat to break the pocket and churn out yardage with his legs.
Pretty clear where Brady and Rivers like to operate. https://t.co/lOKj8m3z48— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) January 8, 2019
But Clayborn will have to earn his game-day reps after ceding work to defensive ends Derek Rivers (one sack, two hurries in 16 snaps in Week 17) and Ufomba Kamalu (two hurries in 21 snaps in Weeks 16 and 17). Helping those players get playing time over Clayborn is the fact that both have the ability to contribute in the kicking game, whereas Clayborn has not been a special teams option.
There is some recent precedent here when it comes to the Patriots sitting one of their more highly-paid defensive ends for back-to-back weeks.
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Back in 2016, Jabaal Sheard was benched early in Week 10, playing only 16 snaps after seeing 56 the week prior. In Week 11, he was a healthy scratch, and the Patriots didn't bring him on their trip to San Francisco.
When Sheard returned he didn't reclaim the role he'd had at times previously, never cracking 40 snaps in a game. But he did have a role. He played 23 of 49 snaps in that season's Super Bowl and played well. Sheard wasn't brought back in free agency the following offseason, but since signing with the Colts, he's been one of Indy's most consistent front-seven defenders.
The Sheard-to-Clayborn comparison isn't perfect because Clayborn's role is a niche one while Sheard was trusted in a wider number of situations by Bill Belichick and the Patriots staff. Plus, Sheard's benching came mid-season, giving him time to earn postseason playing time, whereas Clayborn's time off has come when the Pats want to be playing their best football.
Still, it's the best and most recent example of a veteran player at that position being benched and coming back to contribute. There's a chance Clayborn's benching could have a similar impact, sparking better play in his first win-or-go-home game as a member of the Patriots. There's a chance it won't.
When I spoke to him last week, he vowed to continue to prepare the way he has all season and let the rest work itself out. The question is...Is that enough?
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