How the Patriots’ defensive front seemed to get better as the season wore on
FOXBOROUGH — WHO!???
That’s what Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey tweeted, along with three laughing emojis, seemingly in response to a comments from Patriots defensive tackle Adam Butler, who said this past week that if Ramsey was ready to promise a Super Bowl, he should be ready to back it up.
Ramsey may turn out to be overly bold, but he’s got a point. Even among Patriots fans, how many could pick the undrafted rookie Butler out of a lineup?
For that matter, what about linebacker Marquis Flowers, acquired in August from the Bengals for a seventh-round draft pick? Lawrence Guy? Deatrich Wise?
Those names are notable for one reason: Butler, Flowers, Guy, and Wise are the only members of the Patriots’ front seven who have played every game this season. They may not be well known for another: All four played somewhere else last season.
Hit by injuries, the Patriots’ defensive front has been a patchwork most of the season, relying on players picked off practice squads, the waiver wire, and the street. They’ve had their share of challenges, but still tied for seventh in the league in sacks and enter the AFC Championship game a week after registering a franchise-record eight sacks in the divisional round.
“Our continuity has gotten better,” coach Bill Belichick said after the Tennessee game. “Our execution has gotten better on the pass rush.”
“If we had had this conversation in the middle of the season, you wouldn’t be asking about them,” Belichick added.
So how did a defense that lost Dont’a Hightower, Vincent Valentine, Shea McClellin, and rookie defensive end Derek Rivers, who looked like as though could contribute right away, seem to get better as the season wore on?
How did a team that saw linebacker Kyle Van Noy, defensive end Trey Flowers, defensive tackles Alan Branch and Malcom Brown, and linebacker Elandon Roberts all miss time throughout the season piece together a pass rush?
“We did have some moving parts, so we did have to kind of develop a new chemistry, but now that we have so much more experience together, it’s a little bit easier to have success like that,” Butler said.
The answer, Butler and other players said, was that the team brought in quick studies who listened, rookies proved themselves up to the challenge of an NFL season, and a pair of veterans held it all together.
Not for everyone
Not every player is a natural fit.
Smart players who follow the instructions of the coaching staff tend to stick around, players said, but the demands of a scheme that changes on a week-to-week basis aren’t for everyone.
“We’ve brought in plenty of people where they just don’t understand how the coaches want them to play the game,” Branch said. “You know, because they’re so used to a certain, different way. So if you’re able to comprehend and adjust, that’s a big thing to be able to play here.”
At times, it has seemed as though the Patriots have let talent walk out the door. Kony Ealy got off to a nice start with the Jets after the Patriots let him go in August. Cassius Marsh played nine games but was waived in November and wound up with the 49ers.
Even for the players who do stick, it’s daunting.
“When I first got here, I’m nervous, I don’t know where to go, I don’t know what to do,” Marquis Flowers said. “It’s like they were talking Swahili in the defensive meetings to me and I was like, ‘Yo, this is going to take some time.’ ”
Like Branch, Flowers said the important thing was to always do what the coaches told him, and not worry about anything they didn’t tell him to worry about.
“I kind of look back at it like it was easier than I thought,” Flowers said. “They made it a lot easier.”
Flowers joined the Patriots in August. If that acclimation made his head spin initially, imagine how Eric Lee felt, playing against the Dolphins five days after he’d been signed off the Bills’ practice squad. But somehow, someway, Lee put in the time and the coaching staff got him ready: Lee had a sack and four tackles in 25 snaps in his Patriots debut.
“The coaches do a great job of putting guys in spots, they don’t just put them in spots that they can’t handle,” Flowers said. “They prepare them.”
Flowers noted that Lee had an even better game the next week, with 1½ sacks against his former team.
Ricky Jean Francois, Trevor Reilly, and James Harrison also played right off the bat, and they were ready.
“I don’t think we let it hinder us,” Flowers said. “It was like, ‘Get them up to speed.’ Players, the captains, get them up to speed. Next thing you know they’re coming here and next thing you know by the weekend they’re playing in a game, a real game, and taking meaningful snaps and it’s just like, it happens so fast.”
Clearing the wall
Belichick knew he had two capable rookies in Wise and Butler, but he didn’t know if they’d last — the rookie wall always looms — until they proved they could. Neither has missed a game.
“That’s been pretty impressive to me,” Belichick said. “Those guys have done a good job. A lot of times you see the rookies [have] the length of the season affect them a little bit. I’d say with those guys, in particular, they’ve done a good job of every day coming through, coming here with a lot of consistency, work ethic.”
It’s not always physical, Belichick said. Wise and Butler have stayed on the field, but they also weren’t overwhelmed when asked to learn more and more information as the season wore on.
“They get here early. They do extra. They don’t act like it’s too much for them or the season is too long,” Belichick said. “They have a good energy level every week and that’s been impressive and they’ve continued to improve. I would say they haven’t leveled off.”
Wise looks like a steal out of the fourth round, with five sacks, playing about 50 percent of the defensive snaps. His playing time has levelled off lately, mostly because of other players getting healthy, but he played a big role in wins against the Falcons, Bills, and Raiders when the Patriots were especially shorthanded.
Butler, 6 feet 4 inches and 293 pounds, is small to be playing defensive tackle, but without Valentine, and with Branch and Brown having missed time, the Patriots have needed him.
The two were a big part of the record-setting sack total against the Titans, Butler with one and Wise with two. They clearly enjoyed the moment, romping around the field, jumping on each others’ backs.
“That was very special because it’s sort of different for rookies, a little bit,” said Butler, who knew Wise as a high school track and field athlete in Texas. “We got through a little bit longer, well, not longer process because obviously the vets have been in the process longer, but we go through a different type of grind than they do. So, after all that work that we put in together as rookies, to see it pay off like that, it’s very special.”
Growing up fast
With so many new players, Van Noy and Trey Flowers have become veterans fast.
In a year, Van Noy went from trade-deadline acquisition to defensive signal-caller, wearing the green dot on his helmet and making sure his teammates were aligned correctly.
Flowers is technically in his third year, but he missed nearly all of his rookie year before putting in an excellent season in 2016, earning the nickname “Technique” for his dedication to fundamentals. When Butler learned Flowers’s reputation, he said he started going to Flowers for pass-rushing pointers right away.
“He teaches me a lot about different techniques, and how important it is to have a good first step, how important it is to dip your shoulder, you know, when you’re making your pass-rush moves and stuff like that,” Butler said. “He’s a very encouraging person.”
Flowers said he leaves the coaching to the coaches but is always available to help.
“I’m not one to tell somebody their role, but as far as if they want to come to me asking me for help or asking for advice as far as what the defense is expected to do, I’m here to share some light as far as technique and the terminology, as far as what we do and how we say it,” Flowers said. “I don’t see it as pressure upon me to let him know or make sure that person knows, it’s just one of those things that if they need a little bit more advice or a little bit more understanding, I can clarify.”
It helps that Van Noy and Flowers have been the Patriots’ best players at their positions. Flowers led the team in sacks with 6½ and Van Noy, who began the season playing more off the line but started playing more snaps as an edge rusher when Hightower got hurt, had 5½.
And without them, the Patriots struggled.
In the loss at Miami in Week 14, the Patriots didn’t have Flowers or Van Noy. They entered the game with Lee, who’d been with the team for about three weeks, Reilly, who has bounced on and off the active roster, Wise, Butler, Jonathan Freeny, who’d been signed five days before and was cut two days later, and Geneo Grissom, who almost exclusively plays special teams.
Trey Flowers and Van Noy are both healthy now. Flowers, in particular, was disruptive against Tennessee. Both players were big parts of the Patriots’ plans at the beginning of the season, something that doesn’t apply to everyone expected to contribute up front against the Jaguars.
They’re the plan now, though, and they’ll see if they can get Ramsey to learn all of their names on Sunday.