BUFFALO, N.Y. — The New England Patriots have been faring pretty well without one defender many logically deemed irreplaceable coming into the 2017 season. Let’s see how they do without two.
Given the Patriots’ perceived lack of depth at linebacker and defensive end after training camp, Dont’a Hightower and Trey Flowers were considered the team’s most important defenders in September. Hightower was lost for the season with a torn pectoral injury in Week 7. Now, New England will be playing the Buffalo Bills on Sunday without Flowers, who suffered a rib injury in Week 12.
Flowers by far is the Patriots’ best pass rusher and the most fundamentally sound edge-setting defensive end against the run. So, with Rob Ninkovich retired, Cassius Marsh and Kony Ealy released and Shea McClellin, Harvey Langi and Derek Rivers on injured reserve, who replaces him on defense?
Deatrich Wise, a rookie.
Adam Butler, a rookie.
Eric Lee, a first-year player signed off Buffalo’s practice squad two weeks ago.
Oh, and Geneo Grissom, who was signed off the Patriots’ practice squad Saturday.
It’s not an ideal situation against Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who commands discipline from the opposing defense due to his threat to run on any play. It’s easy to assume Wise, Butler, Lee and Grissom, given their inexperience, will be less disciplined than Flowers. They also aren’t as consistent at generating pressure, though Wise and Lee have shown flashes of pass-rush prowess this season.
The Patriots also could use blitz packages to put pressure on Taylor. New England recorded seven sacks Sunday in its 35-17 win over the Miami Dolphins, and three came from non-traditional pass rushers Elandon Roberts, a linebacker, and cornerback Jonathan Jones.
Kyle Van Noy, an outside linebacker by trade but an edge defender nonetheless, will need to step up the most. Van Noy’s primary responsibility lately has been to rush on passing downs. He has the athleticism to actually limit Taylor if he can avoid over-pursuing the quarterback. Linebacker Marquis Flowers also could get more play on defense with Trey Flowers and fellow linebacker Trevor Reilly out.
Marquis Flowers is the Patriots’ most athletic linebacker, and they’ll need speed on the field while going against Taylor and running back LeSean McCoy. Marquis Flowers is not a great run defender, but he actually can stay with and catch Taylor in the backfield if need be. He also can keep up with McCoy out of the backfield.
Regardless of who the Patriots decide to send after Taylor, more pressure will be on the their secondary to cover the Bills’ receivers for long spans of time. Fortunately for the New England, Buffalo’s receivers are not good. Its leading wideout, Zay Jones, has a catch rate of 37.7 percent this season. Kelvin Benjamin is out with a knee injury, and Jordan Matthews is banged up. The Patriots’ defense has to worry much more about McCoy and tight ends Charles Clay and Nick O’Leary, all of whom will be covered by safeties and linebackers, in the passing game.
It could be an easy day for cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore, Malcolm Butler and Jonathan Jones, as long as they can communicate well. New England likely will be playing more zone defense than normal to help keep Taylor contained.
Sunday will be a test for the surging Patriots defense. And if they don’t pass, don’t freak out. Flowers is extremely important to their success, and he’ll return.
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