While reviewing the film of the Patriots-Buccaneers matchup from Thursday night, there was a play in the third quarter that stood out before the ball was even snapped.
Where was Trey Flowers? A mainstay on the Patriots defensive line, it was odd not to see him at the line of scrimmage.
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He was out there, though. As a middle linebacker.
It was a reminder of a) the different alignments Matt Patricia likes to deploy in the front-seven and b) just how reluctant the Patriots have been to remove one of their best defensive players from the field.
Flowers missed just two snaps against the Bucs -- when Geneo Grissom subbed in to give him a brief breather in the fourth quarter -- and for the season he's been sidelined for only eight snaps total.
Not bad for the 6-foot-2, 265-pounder. Especially considering that Flowers appeared to be playing through some lower-body discomfort at the ends of both the Chiefs and Texans games.
"Level of conditioning is good," Bill Belichick said of the third-year end. "Trey works hard. He’s given us a lot of quality snaps. He has . . . been on the field quite a bit but, you know, he’s earned that playing time. We’ll see how it goes going forward.
"He’s got good versatility for us. There’s a number of different things that he can do well. He works very hard to perform well. He trains hard. Some of that is the function of other players on the team and their roles and, again, what defense we’re in, the type of team we’re playing against, how much nickel, how much base and so forth. We just have to see how all of that goes on a week-to-week basis. He’s done a good job for us and I’m glad that we’ve had him out there."
It really hasn't mattered what the situation is. The Patriots have had Flowers out there and in a variety of roles.
His debut at middle linebacker doesn't figure to be a sign that the Patriots will be using him there extensively going forward, but he plays on the end, as a three-technique, and right on the nose over opposing centers.
Flowers has long arms and bevy of pass-rush moves that have been detailed in this space in the past, and they're certainly no secret to his opponents after notching a 2.5-sack performance in Super Bowl LI.
Yet offenses haven't been able to figure him out. He's among the NFL's top-10 edge defenders, according to Pro Football Focus, in quarterback sacks (4), hits (7) and hurries (14). His 24 total pressures are ninth in the league regardless of position.
And while Flowers is at his best going up the field, the Patriots have used Flowers to drop into coverage on a handful of occasions as well.
"I don’t think he was asked to do a lot of that at Arkansas, but we’ve asked him to do some of those things in terms of coverage and playing inside, playing in the three technique," Belichick said. "He did a little bit of that in college but not a lot, probably more since he’s been here. He’s done a good job of applying himself in those situations and being a good contributor for us there."
Bill Belichick has asked some of his top defensive ends to play extensively in the past, with Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich as two of the foremost examples of the coach's willingness to lean on ends as long as they're conditioning is up to snuff.
Jones played 97.9 percent of the team's snaps in 2013, and he's on pace to hit 97 percent again this season for the Cardinals as the only defensive lineman with more snaps played (333) than Flowers (331). Ninkovich, meanwhile, played at least 80 percent of New England's defensive snaps from 2011-2015, and he broke the 90 percent marker in 2013 (96.0) and 2014 (94.1).
It seems as though Flowers is next in line as the iron man on the edge of the Patriots defense. He's on pace to play 97.6 percent of their defensive snaps, and he's already approaching the halfway point of his total from last season (726, including playoffs). The only Patriots defenders to see more playing time than Flowers this season are Devin McCourty (338) and Kyle Van Noy (333).