FOXBOROUGH — For the second time in less than a year, the Patriots might lose their defensive play-caller.
Following in Matt Patricia’s footsteps, de facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores is the Miami Dolphins’ target for their vacant head coaching position, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport.
Flores became a hot name in this year’s coaching search after revitalizing a struggling Patriots defense that ranked second-to-last in DVOA and allowed 41 points to the Philadelphia Eagles in last year’s Super Bowl.
This season, with Flores calling plays and taking on the defensive coordinator responsibilities, the New England defense improved to 16th in DVOA and shut down some of the league’s best offenses.
At just 37 years old, officially tabbed the Pats’ linebackers coach, Flores is well-liked by the players in the locker room for his stand-up attitude, aggressive coaching style, and calm demeanor.
After New England lost on the final play down in Miami, Flores took responsibility for the meltdown on the “Miami Miracle” addressing the team after the loss.
And his honesty and straight-shooter mentality is something that resonates with the players.
“He’s helped me grow in every category,” linebacker Elandon Roberts said of Flores. “Even with the coaching side of it, taking hard coaching and stuff like that because the game gets hard. When you’re in those peaks in the game when it’s time to go, he always has me ready for those situations. It’s hard coaching, but at the same time I appreciate him doing it.”
All of those qualities, along with his football smarts, are likely why the Dolphins want to hire Flores as their next head coach, and why the coach they call “Flo” was a rising star within the walls of Gillette Stadium and around the league.
If Flores does accept Miami’s coaching job, the question for the Patriots is will they miss him on the field?
From a big-picture standpoint, losing a young rapidly ascending coach within the organization that could’ve been the future after Bill Belichick retires is not a good thing.
But on the field, the answer to that question depends on how much of the Patriots’ improvement on defense was Belichick and how much of it was Flores?
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to get an honest answer to that question, as the Patriots’ operation is a collaborative effort outlined many times by Belichick and the staff.
However, one thing is for sure; the Patriots are scheming things up on defense more than we’ve seen them do in some time, leaning on the veteran players they have on that side of the ball.
“Since I’ve been here, we really haven’t done as much as what we’re doing right now with some packages,” said defensive captain Devin McCourty.
The new defensive schemes the Patriots have implemented this season came from a sliver of Belichick’s playbook, which would suggest it’s mostly the Hoodie’s mastery at work.
But the facts are that with Flores calling plays New England ranked 12th in pressure percentage at 38.9 percent (35.1 percent last season, 27th), led the NFL in unblocked pressures (78), and had the ninth-highest pressure percentage on third down (48.8 percent).
The Pats also turned up the heat, blitzing on 32.1 percent of passing plays (ninth) compared to 26.4 percent last season, according to Pro Football Focus.
Plus, the Patriots shifted their approach slightly in the secondary with a drastic increase in cover-0 looks (no deep safety) disguising coverages and turning up the creativity near the line of scrimmage.
And the more aggressive approach has led to the defense producing ten more turnovers this season than it did a year ago.
Although Belichick led the way, it’s impossible to deny that an increased role for Flores contributed to the improvement on the defensive side of the ball.
Below, we’ll go over how the defense evolved this season under Flores and Belichick:
The first step in the evolution of the defense started against Miami in Week 4 and then carried over into October against Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs.
Against the young Mahomes, the Patriots sent a series of cover-0 blitzes that confused the Kansas City offense.
To force the lone punt of the game, the Patriots took the safety out of the deep area of the field putting Devin McCourty at linebacker in the box. At the snap, the two true linebackers on the field, Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy, take a few steps forward like they’re going to rush, but back off into underneath zones. Instead of a traditional linebacker blitz, the Pats bring McCourty on a blitz that forces the left tackle to slide to McCourty, the nearest threat to the quarterback, leaving Trey Flowers unblocked off the edge. Flowers converges with defensive end Adrian Clayborn rushing on the opposite side, and the Patriots get off the field. In the secondary, you can see that everyone is man-to-man without safety help. The corners on the outside play off-coverage to keep the receivers in front of them, and they all stay in-phase with their assignments.
From there, the Patriots would often threaten the zero blitz and then back off at the snap, and the disguising confused opposing quarterbacks and avoided declaring the coverage pre-snap.
A month later when Aaron Rodgers and the Packers came to town, the Patriots defense used this go or no-go strategy to hold the MVP to 17 points in a win.
Here, it appears that the Patriots are in cover-0 once again as they crowd the line of scrimmage. But at the snap, they back off, going with a contained four-man rush, and drop safeties Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon into a split-safety look. The coverage takes away all of Rodgers’ options downfield and confuses him into holding onto the football. Hightower eventually forces Rodgers out of the pocket, and he short-arms a throw to the sideline.
After the bye week, the transformation was complete when the Patriots introduced their “playground” defense against the Minnesota Vikings.
Since Week 13, the Patriots used the defense on roughly half of their third downs and opponents had a 29.3 percent success rate against it, according to NESN’s Zack Cox.
In this scheme, the Patriots have only one down lineman, usually Trey Flowers, while everyone else bounces around near the line of scrimmage before moving into their spots at the last possible second.
This, of course, hides the coverage and pressure scheme from the offense pre-snap forcing the quarterback and offensive line to decipher the defense after the snap.
On this play, Devin McCourty drops right before the snap into coverage allowing brother Jason to blitz from his slot cornerback position. Along with Devin, safety Patrick Chung drops a beat later into the deep middle of the field to play post safety coverage. The Patriots then added another trick by dropping linebacker Kyle Van Noy underneath Adam Thielen’s route from the slot to take away Kirk Cousins’ “hot” read forcing the Vikings quarterback to hold the ball. The blitz from Jason and slant rush from Hightower gets Trey Flowers a one-on-one matchup on the center, and Flowers beats him clean with a nasty swipe and counter snatch move to pressure Cousins into an incompletion.
The cat-and-mouse game goes on and on from there with the Patriots cycling through different coverages and pressure packages out of these types of schemes.
As stated earlier, many of the new schemes the Patriots rolled out this season came from the mind of head coach Bill Belichick.
However, play-caller Brian Flores contributed to these new ideas and was responsible for calling them at the right time during games.
Flores is also a well-respected figure in the Patriots’ locker room for his high football IQ, ability to teach the defense, and strict coaching philosophy holding both himself and the players accountable for their mistakes.
Furthermore, the Patriots don’t have an obvious replacement if Flores does take the Miami job.
When Matt Patricia left for Detroit, Flores was the obvious choice to take on play-calling duties, but the same talk hasn’t happened yet for defensive position coaches Brendan Daly (defensive line), Josh Boyer (cornerbacks) or Stephen Belichick (safeties).
Daly could be the next in line after he called plays in the Patriots’ fourth preseason game in August, and Belichick might be the future defensive coordinator as his father continues to groom him on that side of the ball.
But there’ve been some rumblings that the Patriots might go outside the organization to replace Flores with former Rutger and Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano.
At the end of the day, there’s still a ways to go before Flores is tabbed the next head coach in Miami; the Dolphins will have to officially offer him the job after the Patriots’ season ends, he has to negotiate a contract, and of course, work out the complexities of going to another team in the AFC East with Bill Belichick.
Life will go on in New England, but if Flores does take the Miami job, the Patriots will have lost an extremely talented young coach with a bright future.
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