FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — When the New England Patriots practice in mandatory minicamp, they simulate game-like conditions by having their coordinators wear headsets to communicate calls onto the field. That was the first visual confirmation that linebackers coach Brian Flores, despite not being given the official title of defensive coordinator, will be taking over Matt Patricia’s duties as the leader of the unit in 2018.
The 37-year-old Flores has been a demanding, vocal presence, and linebacker Dont’a Hightower pointed to Wednesday’s practice as an example of how the unit might take shape under his direction.
“He’s not backing down [and will] be more aggressive,” said Hightower, the two-time captain. “You could see it. I think this was probably our best practice we’ve had and we want to continue to build on that.”
If the Patriots become a more aggressive defense, it would reflect, in part, the way Hightower views Flores’ coaching approach.
“I feel like he brings a lot of competitiveness. Flo has always been known as a straight shooter, a great guy, and a lot of times that’s what you need. He’s not one to babysit,” he said. “I think a lot of guys really appreciate the attitude that he’s brought to us, just in OTAs.”
Hightower was also close with Patricia, and while it’s early, he has noticed some changes with how the unit might approach things this year.
“Matty P and Flo are somewhat the same, but a little different at the same time. With the playcalling we’ve gotten so far, I definitely feel like we’re going to be more aggressive,” he said. “Things are a little bit more simple, but it’s still a little bit different, and guys are learning bits and pieces of the defense. But so far, so good. A lot of guys that have come in from different organizations, like AC [Adrian Clayborn], he’s picked it up and we’re able to run with it and we’re able to play a lot faster.”
Flores had to like what he saw for stretches of Wednesday’s practice, as much as he could for a June workout without pads.
The defense was swarming at times, with one of the highlights coming when Hightower leaped high to deflect a Tom Brady pass to Rob Gronkowski over the middle in 11-on-11 drills, and defensive end Trey Flowers laid out in a full dive and nearly recorded an interception.
Defenders roared at the effort on the sideline, seemingly everyone dialed in, as it was one of six pass breakups by the unit. Later, safety Duron Harmon batted away a Brady pass intended for tight end Dwayne Allen and then wagged his finger, Dikembe Mutombo-style, in the direction of Brady.
The defense was playing fast, and with a notable edge.
Meanwhile, as Flores’ profile begins to rise, more are becoming aware of his background — how he grew up in the housing projects of Brownsville, Brooklyn, one of the toughest neighborhoods in New York. He was a linebacker at Boston College, starting for two seasons, and in 2004 sent letters to all 32 teams inquiring about working for them. The Patriots, with Vice President of Player Personnel Scott Pioli, were the only team to respond and hire him.
Flores has quietly worked his way up the ranks, earning the respect of many in the organization, most importantly Bill Belichick.
“When he first came he was in the scouting department,” Belichick pointed out Wednesday. “Brian’s held a lot of different responsibilities in the organization — on offense, defense, special teams, scouting. So he’s pretty much done it all. He’s done a great job in every area, too.”
Asked what characteristics Flores has that has helped him to elevate to his current position, Belichick said, “He’s smart, he works hard [and] he has good leadership.”
That leadership has been easy to see at the team’s minicamp, and players say it also has shown itself behind the scenes.
“He’s going to bring the energy each and every day,” Harmon said. “He’s not going to let anyone slack off. He’s not going to let anyone think that they got it. He’s going to continue to push us, and make sure we work hard, we run to the ball, and we try to create turnovers.”