Later today, the New England Patriots will face one of their toughest tests of the season: The defending AFC champions will host the defending NFC champions in a rematch of Super Bowl LI. For the Patriots to have the success they had against the Atlanta Falcons in February, they need to be sound in all three phases of the game; their much-maligned defense needs to be up to the task against an explosive opponent.
The Patriots defense has seen a lot of turnover since the two teams last met and will look quite different tonight, especially in the secondary. Not only has 2016 starter Logan Ryan left via unrestricted free agency, his nominal replacement will also not be on the field against the Falcons: Stephon Gilmore suffered a concussion two weeks ago and has already been declared inactive for today's contest.
Gilmore is not the only member of the defense to deal with injury. Number three cornerback Eric Rowe, who played a lot of man-to-man coverage against Julio Jones in the Super Bowl, will be out for the third straight week due to a groin injury. Backup cornerback and last week's starter Johnson Bademosi, meanwhile, was listed as “questionable” on Friday's injury report because of abdominal issues.
To sum up, New England will be short-handed in the defensive backfield against one of the NFL's most talented offenses. Therefore, it is imperative that the rest of the unit brings its A-game. This means that the front-line players need to be stout against the rush while simultaneously bringing consistent pressure against the pass – and one player in particular might be needed to provide all that: defensive edge Trey Flowers.
Flowers has displayed his abilities of doing just that multiple times in the past, most notably in the last game the Patriots played against the Falcons. In Super Bowl LI, the Arkansas product registered 2.5 sacks – his fourth quarter takedown of Matt Ryan being one of the game's biggest plays – and six tackles. If not for Tom Brady's historic performance, Flowers would have been a serious candidate to earn MVP honors.
So far in 2017, Flowers continues to show why he is the Patriots' best pass rusher. Aligning on both the exterior and the interior, the 24-year old is currently tied for the team lead with 3.5 sacks while also having put up a combined 27 tackles. And as New England's secondary is dealing with personnel shortages, the 24-year old is once again needed to step up his game and provide a pass rush the team has oftentimes lacked from other players.
After all, the Falcons have one of the best and most explosive offense's in the NFL. From Matt Ryan to Julio Jones to Mohamed Sanu to Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, Atlanta has a vast array of weapons at its disposal. Expecting New England's banged up secondary to consistently win its matchups is expecting a lot as even the best and most healthy secondaries have a hard time against that talented a group.
Instead, the Patriots need to find a way to get to the player with whom it all starts: Ryan. The 32-year old is the motor that makes the Falcons' powerful engine run. And while his numbers this season have been underwhelming by his lofty standards, he is still one of the NFL's top passers; a player that can make every throw at the highest level and read defenses with the best of quarterbacks.
However, one problem Atlanta has had this year is keeping its franchise quarterback clean. Through the first five games of the season, during which the team went 3-2, Ryan has been sacked 10 times. New England needs to add to this total if it wants to slow down the Falcons' aerial attack. As usual, Flowers will be a key part of trying to make this happen – just like he was during the Patriots' Super Bowl LI victory.
If the 2015 fourth round draft pick is able to replicate his performance from the title game and put pressure on the Falcons' inconsistent offensive line, New England's dinged up secondary will undoubtedly have an easier job. If not, they and the rest of the unit could be in for yet another long day at the office.