FOXBORO, Mass. — It remains to be seen how different Brian Flores’ New England Patriots defense will be from the one Matt Patricia led in recent years, but players have clearly embraced the changes.
Patriots linebacker and team co-captain Dont’a Hightower said he and his teammates appreciate the way Flores — the Patriots’ linebackers coach and de facto defensive coordinator — has simplified New England’s defensive schemes.
“It’s just a little bit easier,” Hightower said Wednesday. “The playbook’s still the playbook, but it’s a little bit easier, and we’re able to play a little bit faster, so I know a lot of guys appreciate that.”
He added: “I think the approach that he’s taken is really hands-on and just being honest with us. He kind of told us what it was and what we needed to do to be a good defense and what we needed to prevent from doing. We hit the ground running, and we’ve been running ever since.”
Several Patriots defenders, including Hightower, offered similar assessments of Flores early in training camp, praising the longtime Patriots assistant’s coaching style and streamlined approach.
What exactly a Flores defense looks like won’t become clear until the regular season begins this Sunday against the Houston Texans, but based on what we saw this summer, he seems to favor a more traditional four-man front over the five-man hybrid looks Patricia typically employed.
It also wouldn’t be surprising to see New England bring pressure more often, as it did against the Philadelphia Eagles in the second preseason game. The Patriots ranked in the bottom third in the NFL in blitz frequency last season.
Regardless of scheme, having Hightower back in the mix will be a major boost for the Patriots’ defense. After earning Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro honors in 2016, the 28-year-old spent the second half of last season on injured reserve after tearing his pectoral muscle in Week 7.
Hightower, who also missed two games with a knee injury earlier in the year, said his spell on IR prompted him to revamp his training and recovery process.
“The biggest thing (is) I try to hit those small muscles that you’re not always hitting and try to treat those more,” he explained. “And maybe a new rehab routine — more acupuncture and soft tissue and things of that nature that I’ve been really educated on since the injury. I feel good now, and I’m going to continue on that throughout the year. Hopefully, that’ll hold me tight.”
Hightower has been a full participant in Patriots practice since organized team activities began in May.
“I’m not really going to count not being in pads, because it’s hard to tell from that,” Hightower said. “But within those first couple of days of training camp, just psychologically, just getting that comfort back down, I felt good, and I’ve been running with that. I’ve been staying on top of this rehab and everything, so it’s been keeping me busy. I’m going to what I can to stay on top of the field.”
Thumbnail photo via Jim Dedmon/USA TODAY Sports Images