Sometimes it is unfair to base everything on the previous season on just one game but when that game is the Super Bowl, it is hard to erase those memories. And for the Patriots, the problems that were plain to see in the Super Bowl against Philadelphia were symptomatic of problems the team faced all season and was able to overcome.
But against a team with a hot quarterback and an offense that blew out the prevailing #1 defense in the NFL, perhaps we should not have been so surprised at the outcome. Specifically, the defense all season struggled to stop the run, especially inside, they struggled to get consistent pressure on the quarterback as well as setting the edge and the coverage by the linebackers was spotty at best.
So how did the team address these deficiencies? It is important to note that the Patriots consider free agency and the draft inexorably linked. They use their draft capital for veteran players as the feeling is, their quality is a more known value than a college player who has yet to play in the NFL. So when looking at the offseason and the draft, for New England, it is always important to use Free Agency when judging the merits of the General Manager’s prowess at team building. (clears throat)
So who is the most important off-season addition in 2018? Adrian Clayborn.
Clayborn checks the block for two of the most important areas that need to be addressed. Setting the edge and getting after the quarterback. The Patriots like their edge guys to be a bit bigger than the greyhounds that populate the NFL landscape today. Because the value setting the edge as a priority. And Clayborn is big, 6’5, 280 pounds of relentless
After an offseason of losing Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long to free agency, Rob Ninkovich to retirement and Dont’a Hightower, top 2017 draft choice Derek Rivers as well as rookie Harvey Langi on IR last year, they were notoriously thin at the position.
One bright spot was the play of rookie Deatrich Wise who chipped in 26 total tackles and five sacks. He added an additional four tackles and two sacks in three playoff games. Less impressive, however, was the play of Cassius Marsh, who wasn’t a fit in the Patriots system and Eric Lee, both of whom had issues setting the edge. That’s why they brought James Harrison late in the season. It put too much pressure on Trey Flowers and the defense suffered for it.
Hightower, Langi, and Rivers are back, which is huge. Wise will be better in Year 2 which helps but in getting Clayborn, the Patriots should have plenty of depth, and production…if everyone can stay healthy.
The Patriots and Bill Belichick have known Clayborn’s value for some time now. He played at Iowa under Belichick close friend Kirk Ferentz, they watched him in joint practices where he played for another Belichick close confidant in Greg Schiano.
“He’s had a good career,” head coach Bill Belichick told Patriots.com. “He’s been a very productive player in multiple positions. So, again, look forward to working with him. I know he’s a solid person, works hard, tough kid. I think he’ll be a good addition to our program. We’ll see how it all goes.”
He’s had injury issues over his career but was healthy for all of 2017 and had a career-high 9.5 sacks and two forced fumbles for the Falcons. He’s yet another former 1st round draft pick (#20 overall in 2011), that the Patriots have brought in later in their career.
With the addition of Danny Shelton inside with Malcom Brown, Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler and the return of Vincent Valentine, the interior of the defensive line should be much improved over 2017. They also double-dipped at linebacker in Rounds 5-6 in the 2018 NFL Draft with Ja’Whaun Bentley (#143) and Christian Sam (#178) which should also help the issues with the position.
Overall on paper, the unit they have now, with the additional players they’ve added in the secondary looks much, much better than the squad that took the field in the Super Bowl. So who is the most important addition to the defense?
He actually isn’t an addition at all, but his responsibilities are added on to. Brian Flores.
With Matt Patricia now a head coach in Detroit, Flores has the play-calling responsibilities as a defensive coordinator but not the title, which he doesn’t care for anyway. Flores himself, the Patriots linebacker coach/defensive coordinator has gotten consideration from the Arizona Cardinals for their head coaching position. Flores has been with the Pats since 2004 and will be watched closely in 2018 to see how he handles the pressure.
When he met with the media about a week ago, it is pretty obvious why so many speak so highly of him. He says all the right things and has his head screwed on straight. His main defensive philosophy is to help the players become the best version of themselves — on and off the field.
Belichick had to be smiling when he saw that Flores, after being asked many times about putting his own personal stamp on the defense, deferred. Instead, he mentioned making a “team imprint” on defense.
Flores said that he’s hard on the players but gets the best out of them. “I’m tough on the players. I think you need to be tough on them so they can be disciplined. You need the discipline to play this game.”
His goal he said, is “going to sound like a Bill Belichick-coached team.” Flores spoke about playing under pressure, being tough, smart and dependable. All of these things are exactly the right thing to say if you’re Flores. Now he’ll have to do it on the field and prove that he’s up to the task. Something about that leads one to believe that he will be just fine as the team’s new defensive coordinator.