Once former New England Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia left to take the Detroit Lions head coaching job, linebackers coach Brian Flores has since served as the defacto defensive coordinator and play caller for the Patriots. After one year on the job, Flores is now a hot candidate as 25% of the league looks for a new head coach. The division rival Miami Dolphins may end up taking him away from Foxborough.
If Flores is named a head coach this offseason, whether in Miami or elsewhere, this would be a quick ascent from linebacker coach to head coach for the 37 year old. Will that be a good decision for that team? Only time will tell. As much as organizations, media, and fans don’t like to admit it, no one really knows how a first time head coach will pan out. What we can do though is review the performance of the Patriots defense during Flores’ first year on the job.
Let’s begin with the Patriots best defensive player in 2018. Stephon Gilmore had a rocky start to his Patriots career last season before settling in. This year he became dominant. When the Patriots handed Gilmore a 5-year, $65 million contract in free agency, the move received significant criticism and second guessing. However, head coach Bill Belichick had a vision for what Gilmore could provide to this defense. That vision was actualized during the first year of Flores calling the shots.
Belichick’s preferred ideology is to have a shutdown, man corner to leave on an island. This way, the other team’s best receiving threat is neutralized. We have seen this with Ty Law, Aqib Talib, and Darrelle Revis in past seasons. Gilmore’s second season in Foxborough resulted in AP First Team All-Pro honors. Additionally, he was named a First Team All-Pro by Pro Football Focus, and graded out as the site’s highest rated corner on the year.
For the season, Gilmore allowed 42 receptions on 90 targets for a completion percentage of 46.7%. He yielded just 466 yards along with 5 touchdowns, while adding 18 pass breakups and 2 interceptions. The passer rating on all throws into his coverage this season was 71.8. Put another way, quarterbacks essentially turned into a mix of Blaine Gabbert and Josh Johnson when throwing Gilmore’s way.
Some of Gilmore’s best performances this season were against elite receivers. He held DeAndre Hopkins to 50 yards on 6 targets, Allen Robinson to 0 yards on 4 targets, Davante Adams to 15 yards on 4 targets, and Antonio Brown to 8 yards on 4 targets.
The Other McCourty
But the outstanding coverage play for the Patriots does not stop there. Despite all the moaning about allowing Malcolm Butler to walk in the offseason, Jason McCourty was an improvement on the 2017 version of Butler. McCourty allowed 53 receptions on 90 targets for 734 yards and 4 touchdowns, while breaking up 9 passes and adding 1 interception. The passer rating allowed in his coverage was 95.1 on the year. Functionally, passers turned into Mitch Trubisky when targeting McCourty.
McCourty also fit the man scheme perfectly. He was equally deployed all over the field and would just follow his assignment wherever he went. McCourty accumulated 751 snaps this season and spent 265 snaps in the slot, 275 snaps at left corner, and 211 snaps at right corner.
The New Undrafted Rookie
To round out New England’s corner trio, undrafted rookie J.C. Jackson really flashed during the second half of the year. His development during the season has been outstanding. After a poor showing in Chicago early in the season, Jackson has now logged 73% of the defensive snaps during the past five games.
Jackson finished the year allowing 262 yards and 22 receptions on 42 targets. He recorded 3 interceptions and added 3 pass breakups. The passer rating allowed in his coverage was 42.0. To put things into perspective, you get a passer rating of 39.6 if you spike the ball in the dirt. Jackson has flashed exceptional ball skills in his short career.
In this clip, it looks more as if Jackson is the one running that route with Wilson in the disadvantageous position of being the defender. Jackson then gets his head around and makes a play on the ball for the pick.
In this clip, Jackson again perfectly plays the receiver, hanging with JuJu Smith-Schuster all the way down the field. Jackson is right there with a contest at the catch point and continues to fight and rip the ball out on an enormous 3rd down.
The Sum of the Coverage Parts
This corner trio, along with the Patriots tenured safety trio of McCourty, Duron Harmon, and Patrick Chung, saw New England finish 2nd in PFF’s team coverage grading, and 14th in defensive pass DVOA through the regular season. Both of these marks are substantial improvements in each category in comparison to 2017, where the Patriots finished 12th in PFF’s coverage grading, and 21st in pass defense DVOA.
The NFL’s Best Kept Secret
The production doesn’t start and end with the secondary, though. At this point, defensive end Trey Flowers has a strong argument for most underrated defensive player in the NFL. His lack of gaudy sack totals hinders his reputation, but make no mistake about it – Flowers is a disruptive force.
In 2018, Flowers registered 65 total pressures, tied for 12th most in the league, and 8th most among edge defenders. 65 pressures is the same amount logged by Cameron Jordan of the New Orleans Saints, and one more than the 64 collected by Von Miller of the Denver Broncos.
In fact, Flowers recorded more hits on the quarterback (12) than Miller did (10), and more hurries (44) than Miller (38). The issue is that Flowers amassed 7.5 sacks to Miller’s 16 and Jordan’s 11. While these numbers made both Jordan and Miller Second Team All-Pro edge defenders, Trey Flowers did not receive a single vote for All-Pro consideration.
Consider how important Flowers’ contribution is relative to the roster of the Patriots roster. New England finished the season 30th in adjusted sack rate, and tied for 30th in total sacks with 30. That means Flowers was responsible for a fourth of the team’s total sacks. This, despite the fact offenses knew there was no other serious individual threat as a rusher.
Despite the lack of sack totals, the Patriots were still able to apply pressure without blitzing. That doesn’t mean Flores never brought the heat, however. At the conclusion of the regular season, Flores had dialed up the 8th highest blitz rate in the NFL.
Flores has also shown somewhat of a tendency to blitz on third down as well. Seemingly trusting the coverage to hold up behind the blitz (for good reason), Flores likes to disrupt the play before it has a chance to properly develop.
The other area of immense growth realized under Flores is the run defense. New England finished this season 19th in defensive run DVOA, and 14th in run defense grading per PFF. Last year, those numbers 31st and 25th, respectively.
The biggest cause is the internal improvement of Lawrence Guy. Guy had the best season of his career. He finished with the 10th highest PFF grade among interior defenders, to go along with the 6th highest run defense grade among the position group.
On the year, Guy finished with 30 run stops, tied for the 15th most in the league, and 4th most among interior defenders. As a point of reference, Aaron Donald also finished with 30 run stops. Among players that logged at least 190 run defense snaps this season, Guy finished with the 8th best run stop percentage.
Elandon Roberts has continued to develop for the Patriots as well. Among players that logged at least 190 run defense snaps in 2018, Roberts ranks 17th in run stop percentage.
All in all, the defense improved in the first season under Flores. Last year New England was 31st in defensive DVOA, while that number improved to 16th this year. In more traditional measures, the Patriots improved from 29th in yards allowed per game in 2017 to 21st in 2018. Flores continued the trend of the “bend but don’t break” defensive philosophy as well, as New England allowed the 7th fewest points per game despite being 21st in yards.
The oddity of the season is how stark a difference there was between how the defense performed at home as opposed to on the road. The Patriots play better at home (we know this) as do most or all teams. But this year, the Patriots allowed an average of 16.6 points per game at home and 23.9 points per game on the road. That seven 7 point swing is the difference between finishing ahead of the Bears for 1st place in points allowed, and tying with the Panthers for 19th.
This raises credible questions as to what chances the Patriots truly have of going into Kansas City and winning a potential AFC Championship game. While it remains to be seen how the playoffs will unfold, Brian Flores is a hot coordinator who seems to have done a fair job in the first year of his promotion.