FOXBORO, Mass. — With 10 returning starters coming back on defense and one big free agent addition in Tommy Kelly, it appeared the Patriots were only drafting defenders for depth this offseason.
With one injury after another, those players who started out as depth have quickly become important cogs, who seem to constantly be making big plays to carry New England to victory. When Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly went down, Joe Vellano and Chris Jones had to step up. When Aqib Talib went down, Logan Ryan‘s role increased. And when Jerod Mayo went down, players across the board had to step up from Jamie Collins to Duron Harmon.
On Sunday, all the rookies made the most of their opportunities out on the field, especially in the second half when the Patriots needed them most.
Ryan didn’t play much defensively in the first half. Some assumed that it was a disciplinary measure taken by Bill Belichick after the rookie was fined for grabbing his crotch while diving into the end zone after a 79-yard pick-six against the Jets. Belichick denied that, but when Ryan did get in there, he made an immediate impact.
Right after the Patriots had finally scored a touchdown, caught by, who else, another rookie, Aaron Dobson, Ryan sacked his namesake, Ryan Tannehill at the 23-yard line, jarring the football loose. Rob Ninkovich scooped up the ball at the 13-yard line and the Patriots were readily in position to score again on a two-yard jaunt by Brandon Bolden.
So what is it about these rookies that allows them to step up at a moment’s notice to make big plays? Ryan says it’s all on the veterans for showing them what to do by example.
“I think it’s all the veterans,” Ryan said. “I think they set the standard. I think Brady sets the standard every day in practice. I think Devin McCourty sets the standard every day in practice. And we don’t want to let those guys down.”
McCourty credits it with a lack of overthinking.
“They’re not thinking about it,” McCourty said. “They’re just saying, ‘I’m up. Its my opportunity.’ And they’re going out there and playing.”
Ryan sacked Tannehill again midway through the fourth quarter on another designed cornerback blitz. Ryan was not the only rookie that got after the Dolphins signal-caller, though. Jones, the goat of the Jets game last week with his field goal push, brought down Tannehill late in the fourth after all hope was already lost.
But that wasn’t Jones’ only big play of the game. He’s constantly around the ball in the middle of the defense and wound up with seven tackles and two tackles for loss. Jones has received high praise from his teammates for good reason. He’s second on the team with 4 1/2 sacks in just five games behind Chandler Jones.
“With Chris and Joe up front, making plays like they’re doing, wE expect that out of them,” McCourty said. “They’re here for a reason. And they’re just doing their job and it’s been great.”
Harmon came up with the game-clinching punt, though it more resembled a punt return. Tannehill chucked the ball in the air and Harmon was lucky enough to be standing near it as it landed. The rookie started laughing and smiling as soon as the interception was brought up.
“It felt good,” Harmon said. “I mean, it’s the first one. Any time you get your hands on the ball as a defender, especially to seal the game, after that hard fought victory, it was a good feeling. It was a good feeling.”
Harmon is still getting reps despite the two starters at his position, McCourty and Steve Gregory, staying healthy. But the Patriots have been fitting Harmon into different roles on defense to get him into the game. He’s shined in his opportunities in base, nickel and dime by coming up with big pass breakups and key tackles.
“I have to give it to the coaches,” Harmon said. “They work their behinds to prepare us each and every week. Throughout the meetings, they make sure we get the little things because at the end of the day, the little things turn into the big things on the field. When they put that on us, we have no choice but to take it from the classroom to the field and try to execute as best we can.”
The game started off rough for the Patriots’ front seven. The Dolphins already had over 100 rushing yards in the first half. It appeared the injuries to Wilfork, Kelly and Mayo had finally caught up with the defense.
But Jones, Vellano and the linebackers did a better job in the second half after making adjustments on defense. It’s a miracle Jones and Vellano, a sixth-rounder cut by two teams this summer and an undrafted rookie, respectively, have been able to step up and start right away in this defense.
“It’s a combination of everything,” Jones said. “We got great coaches, great staff here. The rookies that came in here are hard-nosed, hard-working guys. We take everything we do seriously while having fun with it. You’ll see that all across the room. Joe and I are on the line, work together on a lot of things. It’s just a combination of everything. Everything is just working together.”
Whatever the team is doing to get these rookies prepared, it’s working. Without knowing they’re first-year players, one would assume Ryan, Jones, Vellano, Harmon and the rest of the rookies were long-tenured vets. That’s kind of the way McCourty sees them already.
“Guys have had full preseason, full training camp, a good amount of games now. They’re still rookies on paper, but they can’t still play like rookies and act like rookies,” McCourty said. “Especially with things that have happened with our team. I think those guys are ready for that role.”
Without those rookies, the Patriots might have lost to the Dolphins. For all the criticism Bill Belichick gets for drafting, he seems to have found a quality class this year.