After a weekend off, the New England Patriots returned to work yesterday to start preparations for their divisional round opponent. The Los Angeles Chargers will present a challenge on both sides of the football after finishing the regular season a) as the NFL’s best road team, and b) in the top-10 in both points scored and points given up. Safe to say that New England will need to come out off its bye week swinging.
“It’s one of those things you definitely look forward to,” Trey Flowers said yesterday about entering the playoff race. The defensive edge is in his fourth season with the Patriots — the last on his rookie contract — and has smelled the postseason air each year since he joined the club as a fourth-round draft pick. “You go through a whole season, you prepare yourself for this position, get some time off. You just really want to get back out there.”
Flowers and his defensive teammates will have to be ready not just for quarterback Philip Rivers, who is in the middle of one of the best seasons of his career, but also for a potent running back duo in Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler. The two youngsters combined to touch the football 370 times during the regular season, gaining 2,333 yards and scoring 20 of the Chargers’ 48 offensive touchdowns.
“It’ll be a tough task,” Flowers said about slowing down a potent offensive attack that averaged 26.8 points per regular season game before scoring 23 against one of the NFL’s best defenses last week. “Any time you’re facing a team like this in the playoffs, it’s going to come down to stopping the run. It’s going to come down to the physicality of the game, so that’s what we’ve got to make sure we bring.”
For Flowers and fellow edge defenders Deatrich Wise Jr. and John Simon — and whoever else is active alongside them —, this physicality needs to be on display when tackling the ball carriers but also when it comes to setting a hard edge. Gordon and Ekeler are both dangerous options when they get into open space, so keeping them in the pocket and from reaching the perimeter needs to be imperative for the Patriots defense.
Listening to Flowers, it seems like this message has been preached by the coaching staff quite a bit this season — or why else would he have literal nightmares about not properly setting the edge, as he said yesterday. “I actually, over the bye, had a dream about setting the edge and I didn’t set the edge,” the 25-year old told reporters on Monday. “I woke up, it was a nightmare. It turned into a nightmare.”
In order for Sunday’s game not to turn into a nightmare, Flowers and the rest of New England’s defense need to be sound against both the run and the pass. The impending free agent and third best edge defender in the league according to Pro Football Focus, has been stellar in both areas this season: he is leading the Patriots in quarterback disruptions, and has also been productive as a run stopper wherever he lined up.
The focus against the Chargers will therefore be on the opposite side of the line. The aforementioned Wise Jr. and John Simon have seen plenty of playing time as of late, with Adrian Clayborn — a solid pass rusher but inconsistent when it comes to keeping contain — a healthy scratch for the final two regular season games. But no matter who lines up on the other end of the line, the goal needs to remain the same.
They need to be physical on the edge and set it well against the run. Otherwise, Flowers might have to live through another nightmare: getting knocked out in the divisional round of the playoffs, and entering the postseason — possibly his last with the club — with a bitter taste in his mouth.