At this time of year, winning games is less important than evaluating talent. Sure, it's always nice to win – the Patriots are a perfect 3-0 with one exhibition contest to go this preseason – but the priority is getting as many players as much time on the field as possible to determine who deserves a spot on the 53-man roster.
This might be the one and only time of the football calendar when individual performances are weighed more heavily than team ones.
Safe to say, then, that Trey Flowers has impressed with his play on the Patriots defense this summer. With injuries to more established veterans like Rob Ninkovich, Jabaal Sheard, and newcomer Shea McClellin, the second-year defensive end has taken full advantage of the extra opportunities in practices and games.
Flowers started out strong in his rookie 2015 season as well. In fact, in the preseason opener last August against Green Bay, Flowers sacked Packers starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the early first quarter. However, Flowers was injured on the play and thus, his first NFL season came to an abrupt end. He was placed on injured reserve.
Now, though, he seems to be making up for lost time. He's registered a sack in each of the first three preseason contests (he shared one with fellow d-lineman Anthony Johnson in Pre-Week 2) and is getting consistent pressure on opposing QBs.
"The more you can do, the more valuable you are," Flowers acknowledged.
"Just being able to go out there, having an opportunity to stay healthy, work on my game, and continue to get better. Staying on the field, you get more experience, playing run blocks, playing different styles of offensive linemen and how they play, just being able to transition from one week to another is something to take advantage of… but I'm only two years into it and still have a lot to learn."
Flowers' individual success is also representative of the Patriots defense overall. New England has held its first three opponents to point totals of 22, 22, and 17, thanks in large part to an opportunistic mentality that has created turnovers and big plays on a regular basis. The Patriots have four sacks, six interceptions, and a pair of fumble recoveries through three preseason affairs.
Veteran cornerback Logan Ryan notched one of those INTs against Carolina this past Friday night.
"We're continuing to get the ball, which is something that we've harped on. Turnovers are contagious," he remarked Sunday. "We're going to keep sticking to the drills in practice.
"We always try to be a confident group. We put a lot of work in… I just know we're having a lot of fun, taking it one week at a time."
As well as the defense has been playing, Patriots coaches will have to make some tough decisions this week. On Tuesday, as required by the NFL, all rosters must be trimmed from 90 to 75 players. Then, on Saturday, that number must be whittled further to the final 53.
"It's tough. It's always a tough time," Ryan said about the stressful week ahead for players in jeopardy of being let go. "These are your friends, on and off the field. You get to know the people's families. It's a business and this is the hardest part of it every year, but it puts that inner fire in my belly to go and support my family and do what I need to do so that it doesn't happen to me right now."
"It can be on your mind and be nerve-wracking," added Flowers, "but I look at it that you can control what you can control and only do as good as you can. Go out there, do your job, give it your best shot, and if it doesn't work out here, you might get a chance somewhere else. But I just really focus on me and how much better I grow each and every day."
One Final Tune-up
Sandwiched in between those two cut-down dates, the NFL preseason officially comes to an end this Thursday, when all clubs play their fourth and final warm-up games. The Patriots travel to New York to play the Giants in a game that historically features most of the players whose status on the team is least certain.
Coaches are generally both reluctant to play their best players too much (if at all), for fear of having them sustain a serious injury just one week before the regular season, and to give unheralded players one last chance to impress.
Quarterback Jacoby Brissett is one of the rare rookies who is virtually assured of a job with New England come September. He'll likely get the bulk of the snaps Thursday at MetLife Stadium in place of Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo.
In mop-up duty against the Panthers, Brissett spent a good amount of time scrambling away from pressure, while managing to complete all nine of his pass attempts, including one for a touchdown. Brissett was asked by reporters to evaluate what proved so successful for him two nights earlier.
"My mechanics, players making good plays, getting the looks we wanted [from the defense], and capitalizing on them… Definitely, it was progress [against Carolina]," he responded, "playing more, practicing more, getting more familiar with things we're doing. It's still an on-going process of learning and getting better.
"You [also] see some of the things you messed up on and could have done better," Brissett was quick to add. "That's the main thing you take away from the situation."
The rookie passer said he's not yet been informed if he'll start or not against the Giants, but is preparing, as he always does, like he will be the starter.
The Patriots arrived back in New England shortly before dawn Saturday morning and will not return to the practice field until Monday.
Meanwhile, the club made a procedural move over the weekend, placing defensive lineman Frank Kearse on injured reserve. He was named among three players released last week, but according to the NFL's transaction wire, he has been placed on the team's IR list.
There were additional media reports that LB Jonathan Freeny has signed a two-year extension with New England.