FOXBORO, Mass. — Kyle Dugger missed two games with an ankle injury, then played just four snaps in his return.
Setback? No way, the New England Patriots rookie said. More like an opportunity.
Dugger, the Patriots’ top pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, said he used his time away from the field to hone his film study and enrich the mental aspects of his game.
The young safety’s development was evident Sunday night as he made the first start of his young NFL career and registered a game-high 12 tackles in a 23-17 win over the Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium.
It was an impressive step forward for a player who already had displayed tremendous potential before his injury.
“It definitely was tough at first,” Dugger said of his layoff, which sidelined him for losses to the San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills. “I did feel like I was building some momentum, but it was really good to be able to get a different perspective. I was able to really work on my film study and how I look at other teams and develop other things while I was not able to practice or perform.
“So some might look at it as a setback, but it really wasn’t, because it helped me develop other stuff that I might not have gotten a chance to get at.”
Dugger logged a career-high 56 defensive snaps Sunday night (85 percent), primarily playing as a hybrid strong safety/outside linebacker in a defensive game plan aimed at containing Lamar Jackson and the Ravens’ dangerous rushing attack.
The Lenior-Rhyne product made his presence felt on the game’s opening drive, blowing up lead blocker Nick Boyle to drop Mark Ingram for a 1-yard loss. He remained heavily involved as the game progressed, dishing out multiple thunderous hits and missing just one tackle, according to Pro Football Focus.
Dugger’s ability to wreck blockers and ball-carriers alike has been apparent since the early stages of his debut season.
“It’s definitely something I look to bring,” the former Division II standout said of his physicality. “If that’s something I can add to the defense, that’s definitely something I want to be able to do. It’s not necessarily something I specifically try to do, but I’m just trying to add anything, really, to the defense to make us a better defense.”
Dugger did have a few issues in coverage against star tight end Mark Andrews — a heavy pass rush bailed him out on one end-zone incompletion, and Andrews later beat him for an 18-yard gain that was negated by a penalty — but those miscues did not overshadow his overall performance.
On one third down in the second half, Dugger nearly wrestled the ball away from Andrews for an interception while stopping the tight end short of the marker. On another, he tackled receiver Willie Snead from behind after Snead had evaded cornerback Jason McCourty. The latter forced a crucial Baltimore three-and-out.
“He’s a big body (6-foot-2, 220 pounds) who can run,” fellow safety/linebacker Adrian Phillips said. “He comes with a bad attitude, and it showed (Sunday night). He had 12 tackles, and he was a force on the field. When you’re able to add somebody like that to your defense, you’re only going to get better, and it was great to see him go out there and make those plays.”
Earlier this season, Phillips raved about Dugger’s football IQ and ability to learn schemes, comparing him to Los Angeles Chargers All-Pro Derwin James in that regard.
Arguably Dugger’s biggest contribution Sunday came in the game’s final minute. With the Ravens facing third-and-7 from their own 20-yard line amid a torrential downpour, Dugger wrapped up J.K. Dobbins with an open-field tackle, dropping the running back in bounds and keeping the clock rolling.
“Lamar hit the check down, so I was able to come down,” Dugger explained. “I felt like it would’ve been smart of him to get out of bounds, so I really tried to use my leverage to step into the tackle and keep him from going out of bounds.”
A Dobbins drop one play later ended the game.
“I know he had 12 tackles,” Phillips said, “but the most important tackle — and I think one of the plays of the game — was at the end of the game (when) he kept the running back from going out of bounds. That was a huge play — open field, huge play versus a good running back.
“He’s a baller, man, and it was good to see him be able to go out there and put it on the field and show to the world that he’s here. I like that a lot.”