“I think the National Football League has always been a passing league,” New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick told reporters last week when asked about his team’s defensive performance. Passing is the name of the game as it is built in 2018: being consistently successful and playing winning football without a good pass offense and pass defense is near impossible in the current era.
From a defensive perspective, it is therefore highly important in this day-and-age to be able to challenge quarterbacks, wide receivers and offensive linemen on an every-down basis. As a result, pass rushers and cornerbacks are among the highest paid players in all of the sport — and the aforementioned Patriots are no exception: in 2017, New England signed free agent cornerback Stephon Gilmore to a 5-year, $65 million contract.
The Patriots also have a budding star pass rusher under contract in Trey Flowers, a player that will command top dollar if he is allowed to hit the open market in a little more than two months. Led by the 25-year old, New England’s pass rush has been relatively productive this season — even though it is not consistently producing sacks. In fact, the team is registering quarterback takedowns on just 4.51% of pass attempts.
This ranks the Patriots clearly below the NFL average of 7.28% and as the second worst team in football when it comes to sacking quarterbacks. In total, New England has produced just 26 sacks this year — a team-high 6.5 of which coming from Flowers — which is tied for 30th in the league. However, a pass rush is more than just the number of sacks and when judged by pressure, the Patriots are among the NFL’s best.
According to NFL Matchup on ESPN, New England’s defense pressures opposing passers on a solid 33.2% of dropbacks. In this category, the team ranks far better when compared to the rest of the NFL: it trails only the Jacksonville Jaguars’ 34.8% and the Los Angeles Rams’ 34.3%. As can be seen, the Patriots are putting pressure on quarterbacks with the best of them but oftentimes fail to turn the rush into actual sacks.
However, pressure is still important as it can lead to errant throws or bad decisions being made by a quarterback. And while it would be nice for New England to also rank among the league’s best teams when it comes to actual sack numbers, the high pressure percentage is a big reason for the unit’s albeit at times inconsistent success against pass-happy teams like the Kansas City Chiefs (in the first half), Green Bay Packers or Minnesota Vikings.
The Patriots’ best performer when it comes to putting the heat on passers is, unsurprisingly, Trey Flowers. The fourth-year man is leading the team with a combined 54.5 pressures (according to The Athletic’s Jeff Howe): he has 6.5 sacks next to his name as well as 22 quarterback hits and 26 hurries. Flowers, however, is not the only player producing a pass rush for New England.
Kyle Van Noy and Adrian Clayborn have also had some success when it comes to attacking quarterbacks. While Clayborn — a surprise healthy scratch last week against the Buffalo Bills — is second on the team with 25.5 pressures (2.5 sacks, 13 hits, 10 hurries), Van Noy comes in third: he has impacted quarterbacks 24.5 times (3.5 sacks, 10 hits, 21 hurries), ahead of fellow linebacker Dont’a Hightower’s 20 (1.0 sack, 4 hits, 15 hurries).
One thing becomes clear, however, when looking at those numbers: Flowers is the key to the Patriots’ pass rushing success and a player that needs to be locked up — especially considering that the team does not appear to have any other player on its roster right now producing similar results.