FOXBORO, Mass. — Players like Akiem Hicks aren’t typically available in exchange for fourth-string tight ends, but somehow the New England Patriots acquired the disruptive defensive tackle for just that in late September.
The Patriots shipped Michael Hoomanawanui, who had fallen behind Rob Gronkowski, Michael Williams and Scott Chandler on the tight end depth chart, to the New Orleans Saints for Hicks on Sept. 30. It took Hicks a few weeks to acclimate to the Patriots’ defense, but he’s currently playing at his career peak with a new role and increased snaps each week.
Hicks said he has been more disruptive over the last four weeks for two reasons: increased comfort in the system and a more defined role.
“Both of those factors have to be in place to be successful in this system for any person, any player,” Hicks said. “I think that my time here has been spent well, focusing on what I need to do to become a better player, in general. And then, along with the coaches, keeping me as a part of the defense and pushing me forward.”
Hicks’ role changed when he came from New Orleans, switching from five-technique defensive end to defensive tackle.
“Certainly it takes some acclimation, and systematically we’re different from what Rob (Ryan), who was the (defensive) coordinator at that time — so what Rob was running there, and where Akiem was playing in those defenses were a little different from what we’re doing,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said Wednesday. “I think he’s gotten a little better each week with the communication, the understanding of the game plan.
“We change things a little bit fairly regularly, so there’s definitely an element of game planning and things we do specific to one team that don’t necessarily carry over from the week before. I think that’s an adjustment for a lot of players that come in here. I think he’s done a good job, he works hard, he’s certainly improved and gotten a lot better in all those areas. There’s still room to go, but he’s made a lot of progress.”
Hicks played 51 defensive snaps against the Miami Dolphins and was one of the main reasons why the Patriots were able to hold them to just 2.8 yards per carry, despite 29- and 19-yard runs.
Hicks’ biggest impact over the past four weeks has come as a pass rusher, however. He took over the third-down interior pass rushing role after Dominique Easley was placed on injured reserve following a Week 14 thigh injury. Hicks had two sacks and two QB hits in Week 14; a sack, three hurries, a fumble recovery and a touchdown in Week 15; a QB hit and three hurries in Week 16 and six hurries in Week 17.
Hicks was used in a variety of roles with the Saints, but he always has been known for his disruptive abilities.
“Definitely, I’ve always felt like I’ve had a decent amount of hip twist and being able to get to the quarterback,” Hicks said. “It was not my first time dabbling in that arena. I definitely feel comfortable.”
Hicks consistently put Dolphins blockers on roller skates Sunday as one of the only standouts in the Patriots’ loss. He commanded double teams as he moved from the nose to three-technique defensive tackle and still provided pressure using his bull rush.
“That’s my best move,” Hicks said. “I’ve got to tell you, there’s a lot of guys with a lot of moves out there, and you’ve got to find the one that’s the best for you, and that’s the one that works best for me.”
Hicks is 6-foot-5, 324 pounds but still can use leverage to get under his blockers, using his long arms to separate and move toward the quarterback. He has deceptive athleticism for his size and will be extremely valuable as a versatile chess piece in the Patriots’ playoff run against the run and pass.
Hicks also has made himself a lot of money late this season. He’ll be a free agent in the offseason and has proven to be a valuable commodity after a disappointing start to the season with the Saints.
Hoomanawanui, by the way, caught 11 passes for 76 yards with three touchdowns for the Saints. Advantage: Patriots.
Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images
Thumbnail photo via Dec 20, 2015; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots defensive end Akiem Hicks (72) reacts after recovering a fumble and returning for a touchdown against the Tennessee Titans in the second quarter at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
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