Wednesday, June 03, 2020

What I learned from rewatching all of Trey Flowers’ 2019 defensive snaps

By Chris Burke Jun 2, 2020

Let’s talk about defensive statistics for a second, shall we?
Week 11 of the 2019 season. The Lions lose to the Cowboys, 35-27, and Trey Flowers’ official line looks like this: zero tackles, zero sacks, three quarterback hits. It’s the only game for him over a six-game stretch, spanning late October to early December, in which he fails to record a sack; it’s the only game all season in which he doesn’t have a tackle. Look back on it now and it appears to be evidence for anyone calling Flowers’ first Detroit season a disappointment, after he signed a $90 million contract.
Here’s the thing: Those numbers against the Cowboys are a mirage. They’re completely misleading.
True, Flowers didn’t sack Dak Prescott on that Sunday. But, matched up for most of the afternoon with all-world left tackle Tyron Smith, Flowers consistently created havoc for the Cowboys’ offense. He was a force, stats be damned.
On Dallas’ first offensive play, for example, Flowers looped inside from a five-tech alignment, cleared center Travis Frederick and was just about to pop Prescott but the Cowboys’ QB fired a quick, comeback route. The next snap resulted in an Ezekiel Elliot fumble. In the NFL’s gamebook, Jarrad Davis received credit for a tackle, forced fumble and fumble recovery. In reality, none of it happens without Flowers:

Another one for your consideration. Flowers spent a lot of this game trying to beat Smith with leverage and power, mixing in an occasional spin move back toward the inside. Here, though, he dips his shoulder wide and turns the corner on the Cowboys’ left tackle. If the Lions’ coverage holds for another split-second, this is a clean sack and maybe a forced fumble.
Instead, it’s a QB hit … and nothing else.

And that’s the way a lot of the 2019 season went for Flowers — he was very, very close from pushing his decent Detroit debut (7.0 sacks, 51 tackles) toward high-end production. Just 18 players had double-digit sacks last season; it doesn’t take much imagination to believe Flowers could’ve been the 19th.
Would he have gotten there if he’d been 100 percent all season? Or if he’d had a little more help from those around him on the first and second levels?
Even acknowledging that he had a few disappointing outings — Green Bay and Minnesota both neutralized Flowers rather effectively — the good far outweighed the bad. If the 2019 season was merely a hint of what’s to come, Flowers could be an All-Pro threat for the Lions’ defense.
Here’s a closer look at why:
The production
You can almost draw a line down the middle of Flowers’ season and pinpoint when he started to feel like his old self. Remember, his final Patriots season didn’t end until Super Bowl LIII on Feb. 3, 2019, then he required minor shoulder surgery before signing with Detroit the following month. He opened training camp on the PUP list and didn’t play at all in the preseason.
There were flashes of the full Trey Flowers repertoire early on, nonetheless. He recorded eight tackles and a sack in a Week 3 win at Philadelphia, plus showed off his versatility in the process — he took 26 of his 52 snaps from the left side of Detroit’s line, another 22 on the right and a handful over the ball. The following Sunday, he played well again as the Lions nearly sprung an upset on the Chiefs.
But the moment when Flowers (and the coaching staff) knew he was all the way back didn’t truly come until Week 8, against the Giants.
Midway through the fourth quarter of that game, Flowers absolutely tossed left tackle Nate Solder and sacked QB Daniel Jones. One player later, Flowers extended his left arm, brace and all, and bench pressed Solder back into Jones’ lap for a sack. Pure power.

Flowers later missed Detroit’s Week 12 game against Washington with a concussion, but it’s fair to say that any lingering concerns over his shoulder or his strength vanished over the season’s final two months. For the year, Sportradar credited Flowers with 35 QB pressures, a top-20 mark. Over November and December (despite missing a game in that window), Flowers climbed even higher.

Stretched out over a full 16-game season, that pace would’ve given Flowers 46 pressures — the same number Nick Bosa had in ’19 and two shy of what Flowers himself produced in 2017. And of his 7.0 sacks, six of them came from the Giants game on. It took a bit to rev up the engine, but Flowers eventually reached his typical production.
That helps explain why GM Bob Quinn was willing to commit so much money to Flowers: He’s a coveted high-ceiling/high-floor guy, and we might not have seen him at his peak yet. Check out this model of consistency:

How much more is left untapped?

The usage

Don’t want to get too bogged down in the details here, but a moment to revisit Flowers’ versatility. Or his “multiplicity,” which is one of Matt Patricia’s favorite buzzwords — this idea that the Lions want offensive and defensive units that are matchup-proof. Having players who can shift seamlessly from one spot to another is central to that plan.

Flowers fits. He’s primarily an edge guy, but with a skill set that allows him to travel along the defensive line. Here’s where Detroit used him in 2019:

While Flowers spent the vast majority of his time aligned off the right side of Detroit’s line (approximately 80 percent of his snaps), there were some weeks — Philadelphia, Oakland — when the Lions flipped him in pass-rush situations. Maybe it was the matchup, maybe they saw something in how those offenses attacked. Whatever the reason, Flowers had no trouble moving down the line.
I also had it in mind that Flowers played inside more than he actually did. He finished at almost 30 percent between zero- and four-tech spots, but that number is skewed by the 58 snaps he took as a three-tech in Week 17.
Patricia has a ton of variations within his fronts. When he used three down linemen, however, the options that showed up most often:
  • A zero-tech and two five-techs, usually with an additional stand-up defender on each side of the line.
  • An Okie front that’s more of a condensed 3-4 setup, with a nose tackle over the ball, then a DT in each 3-gap.
  • A more spread-out look, at times almost mimicking a 3-3-5 stack, featuring two three-techs and a five-tech.
It was within that second setup that Flowers saw most of his three-tech snaps. His rarer one-tech moments typically came when the Lions dropped to a 2-4-5 front and rushed two down linemen from the A-gaps, flanked by linebackers on the edge.
The point being: Flowers, while most effective in that five- to seven-tech space, provided a little bit of everything last season. Patricia probably will lean into that even more if the Lions’ young edge rushers develop and command playing time.

The player

It is — and this is something of a mea culpa as someone who covers the team, too — easy, at times, to overlook Flowers because he’s not a freaky athlete off the edge. He’s not a pin-your-ears-back defender who just flies around tackles, play after play.
He’s a technician, so it’s easy to see why Patricia is so fond of the ex-Patriot. The reps happen where Flowers bends the edge and beats a lineman wide, but more often you’ll see him getting into a tackle’s pads and rerouting him. And, not to get hung up on this point too much, he was a few steps here or there from a much more impressive statistical season.
Another example that puts it all together:

That is a phenomenal move against Chiefs right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, and one that doesn’t happen on a whim. Flowers had a plan for that pass rush. If Mahomes doesn’t somehow manage to get this throw off despite Flowers’ hand swiping down at the ball, it goes into the books as a strip sack. Instead? Another QB hit and a pressure.

This was a recurring theme. I’d compare it to a baseball player who bats .270 but with a putrid BABIP (batting average on balls in play). Some of it, frankly, is just bad luck. If, time and again, you hit it on the screws right at people, what else can you do? A few more of those shots find a hole and you’re batting .300 … just like if Flowers had converted two or three close calls, he’d have been up among the top pass rushers of 2019.
“Yeah, I think Trey Flowers played exceptionally well,” Quinn said at his end-of-season presser. “I think Trey, the first couple of weeks of the season, was still kind of battling through the shoulder thing. But once he turned it on, I think he played really well for us in all aspects – run defense, pass defense, quarterback hits, hurries, sacks.”
That last point is a key one, because the Lions trust Flowers in all situations. In fact, he might have the highest awareness level of anyone who took snaps among Detroit’s front seven last year.
He rarely took himself out of position, even against teams that used a lot of QB-read concepts like the Cardinals or Cowboys — see, again, the “tackle” of Elliott above. And when Flowers aligned as a five-tech or wide, the Lions frequently asked him to jam a releasing tight end/back before rushing. He even dropped into coverage 21 times, per my rewatch.
Flowers was, in short, the Lions’ most well-rounded defender last season.
Which should make the fact that he had clear room for improvement awfully encouraging. Most notably, Flowers missed eight tackles last season — up from two in 2018 — including an absolutely clean shot on QB Jameis Winston. A sack there would’ve been his career-best eighth for the year. Instead, he whiffed.
Offensive linemen also found some success, especially early in the year as he battled the shoulder issue, wiping out Flowers on run plays. This, from the first matchup with Green Bay:

That’s a bad rep from Flowers, as guard Elgton Jenkins takes him out of the play. However, at the same time it spotlights something that hurt Flowers — and the defense as a whole — last season: shaky play from the second and third levels of the defense. On the long run by the Packers’ Jamaal Williams, Jarrad Davis shoots into the wrong gap and the safeties fail to cover it up. Williams turns a six-yard run into a 45-yarder, right through Flowers’ gap.
This was just reality, Flowers often operating without a safety net. When the linemen didn’t finish, too many runs turned into big gains because of a lack of second-level support. On passing downs, if the Lions didn’t scheme Flowers into one-on-one rush situations, opposing offenses tossed extra bodies at him because they weren’t afraid of anyone else.
Still, Flowers tended to be a handful in one-on-one spots, and some of the Lions’ best blitzes came when he occupied multiple blockers and a linebacker shot into the backfield behind him. A lot of things that don’t show up in final stat line.
All of these positive moments need to happen with more regularity, but Flowers’ numbers don’t paint the entire picture on his 2019 play.
The future
I’ve given away the ending already: Lions fans should be excited about the possibilities. The statistical expectations for Flowers probably need to stay somewhat tempered for a couple of reasons:
  1. He’s not a pure pass rusher in the mold of a Von Miller or Justin Houston, so much of his value still lies in how the Lions can move him around their fronts.
  2. This specific scheme doesn’t always turn its pass rushers loose, like when the Lions rush three and drop eight — those are stacked odds. Patricia often just wants to pin quarterbacks in the pocket.
Even so, Flowers’ work over the final two-plus months of 2019 and against some of the game’s top tackles should point the arrow upward. What remains to be seen is how much help he’ll get.
One thing that rewatching all of Flowers’ snaps hammered home is just how much Detroit swapped out up front. When Da’Shawn Hand and Mike Daniels were ailing, the Lions’ primary line usually featured Flowers, Damon Harrison and A’Shawn Robinson, plus Devon Kennard as the hybrid DE/OLB. Three-quarters of that grouping is gone.
On paper, it’s easy to plug in Danny Shelton for Harrison, Hand/Nick Williams for Robinson and Austin Bryant/Julian Okwara for Kennard, but that makes for a lot of moving parts. Will those changes be upgrades? Will they ease some of the burden that landed on Flowers’ shoulders last season as the team’s most disruptive lineman?
Something to file away for later, perhaps: An interesting shift that happened late, once Bryant rejoined the lineup. Patricia, on several occasions, utilized the rookie as his third-down edge rusher from the right side, with Flowers as a one- or three-tech next to him. Flowers wasn’t nearly as effective an inside pass rusher as he was outside, but a Bryant-Flowers pairing — mirrored on the other side by, say, Hand and Julian Okwara — might maximize the Lions’ athletic personnel on third downs.
Patricia should let Flowers get after offensive tackles as much as possible, but … options. Flowers’ ability to play from any technique frees up a lot of possibilities.
Of course, the biggest factor for Flowers is that he’s healthy. Whenever the Lions are able to reconvene this summer, he should be able to handle a full workload — and, in turn, hit the ground running in Week 1. That’s huge. He didn’t have that chance last year, and it took almost half the season for him to establish any semblance of game-to-game consistency.
If he finds it early in 2020, Flowers has a chance to take his game to another level. He wasn’t far off from making that happen in 2019.
(Photo: Tim Fuller / USA Today)

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