Patriots’ Adrian Phillips Undeterred By Small Stature As De Facto Linebacker

'Even though they're bigger than me, I bang just as hard as they do'


Nov 12, 2020

The New England Patriots’ official roster lists Adrian Phillips at 5-foot-11, 210 pounds.

Mekhi Becton, the New York Jets’ gargantuan rookie left tackle, is listed at 6-7, 363.

That’s a difference of eight inches and 153 pounds — about as significant a mismatch as you’ll find anywhere on a football field.

Early in Monday night’s Patriots-Jets game, New York called an off-tackle run to the left. Phillips, playing in the inside linebacker spot he’s occupied for much of this season, fired up to plug the hole — and found himself face to face with Becton, one of the NFL’s largest players.

His thoughts in that moment? Simple.

“I’ve got to win,” Phillips said Wednesday, smiling. “No matter what, I’ve got to win.”

And he did. Becton’s initial shove knocked Phillips back a yard or two, but he wasn’t decleated or thrown to the turf the way several of the imposing lineman’s much bigger victims have been this season. Keeping his footing, Phillips teamed up with defensive end Deatrich Wise to drop La’Mical Perine for a 3-yard gain.

In a matchup that lopsided, that’s a win for the defense.

“It doesn’t matter if he’s a guy my size or a guy his size,” said Phillips, who finished with a team-high eight tackles in the Patriots’ 30-27 victory at MetLife Stadium. “At the end of the day, I’ve got a job to do. It’s my job the plug that gap. He got a nice little push on me, but I still was able to come off and make the play. But I’ve been dealing with that since I’ve been playing football.”

He’s been dealing with that all season, too. Despite being standard size for his listed position — safety — the Patriots essentially have made Phillips a full-time linebacker in his first campaign in New England. The 28-year-old still plays some in the defensive backfield, but the vast majority of his snaps have come at the second level alongside Ja’Whaun Bentley. He also sees action as an edge rusher in certain packages.

The efficacy of this setup can be debated — there are times when Phillips gets overpowered by larger linemen, and New England’s linebacker play overall has been iffy this season — but Phillips’ toughness is undeniable.

“You go against those big O-linemen, and sometimes you have no other choice but to just go down there and just plug it the best way that you can,” he said. “So that’s my mentality. Just go out there and just find a way to get it done. If I’ve got to go head-up with you, I’ll go head-up.”

Phillips compared the challenge of clashing with colossal blockers like Becton to a “chess match.”

“They’re bigger, so they’re going try to come maul me off the ball,” he explained. “It’s fun to try to find ways to be able to get around that, whether that’s with speed or using my hands or going head-up. It’s fun to watch him and just see my matchups and know how they’re going to try to attack me and just be able to beat it.”

Earlier this season, Patriots inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo called Phillips “a linebacker at heart” who “just stopped growing sooner than the rest of us.” His 54 tackles this season lead all New England defenders, as do his four tackles for loss.

A first-team All-Pro special teamer in 2018, Phillips also is one of just two Patriots players (along with Justin Bethel) with multiple tackles in the kicking game at the season’s midway point.

“If I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t do it,” Phillips said of his linebacker role. “And basically, that’s me saying if I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t do it (well), and I wouldn’t be out on the field. I love going up in there. I have the mentality that even though they’re bigger than me, I bang just as hard as they do.”

Thumbnail photo via Vincent Carchietta/USA TODAY Sports Images
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