FOXBORO, Mass. — Pick any impactful defensive play late in the New England Patriots’ Week 1 loss to the Miami Dolphins, and there’s a good chance Adrian Phillips was involved.
On Miami’s final possession of the third quarter, Phillips forced a three-and-out by dropping Salvon Ahmed in the backfield on first down. He then flew in to blow up a screen pass to Myles Gaskin on third down.
One drive later, Phillips shot through the line on a blitz and sent Tua Tagovailoa scrambling. With Matt Judon also in pursuit, the Dolphins quarterback heaved up an attempted throwaway that was intercepted by Jonathan Jones.
Between veteran newcomers like Judon and Davon Godchaux, established names like Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Devin McCourty, and emerging youngsters like Josh Uche, Kyle Dugger and Christian Barmore, Phillips is something of a forgotten man in New England’s defense. But that lack of publicity belies his impact.
Phillips’ versatility was a saving grace for last season’s flawed Patriots D. A safety by trade, the 29-year-old spent most of his first season in Foxboro as a de facto inside linebacker due to lack of depth at that position. He also played nearly 175 snaps as an edge rusher despite standing just 5-foot-11, 210 pounds.
Though he was outmuscled at times by much larger offensive tackles, Phillips held his own in these roles. He led the Patriots in tackles (107) and tackles for loss (seven) while also registering a sack, two interceptions and four passes defended.
Patriots inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo has called Phillips “a linebacker at heart” who “just stopped growing sooner than the rest of us.”
“Whenever I think of a football player, AP’s one of the first guys who really sticks out,” Hightower said Thursday. “Whenever you say football — the guy really loves football. He’s a safety that can play linebacker and line up on the line of scrimmage.
“You see a lot of hard-hitting safeties and stuff, but a lot of those hard-hitting safeties, they’re playing on the back end. But AP’s in the box. He’s in there with 330-pound guys bench-pressing them and stuff. You can’t do anything but respect that, and that definitely won me over last year, just sitting back and watching him play. I love AP as a teammate and as a friend.”
The Patriots’ influx of front-seven reinforcements allowed Phillips to play more of a traditional safety role in training camp, and he excelled, routinely locking down high-priced tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry in practice. But New England again tapped into Phillips’ versatility in Sunday’s season opener, giving him two snaps at strong safety, three snaps at free safety, four snaps at wide cornerback, five snaps at slot corner, nine snaps on the edge and 10 snaps at linebacker, according to Pro Football Focus.
Phillips was a quality player during his six seasons with the San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers — and an All-Pro as a special teamer in 2018 — but he said playing in New England under head coach Bill Belichick has improved his game exponentially.
“Being with the Chargers for six years, I thought I had a pretty good handle on the league and how I attacked stuff, how I broke down film and things like that,” Phillips said. “Then I came here with Coach and being in this system and seeing how it’s just, like, something totally different. Like, dang, there was a lot that I didn’t know. It’s been fun to learn it, and it’s been a challenge to learn it, and I’ve accepted that challenge and used it to help me grow a whole lot more.
“So I would say that I’m a way better player than I was two years ago just from being in this system and learning something new.”
Phillips said he’s heightened his knowledge of offensive line play and blocking schemes, which allows him to read opposing offenses more quickly. He’s also in his second season working alongside McCourty and Dugger, the other members of New England’s multitalented safety trio.
McCourty and Dugger started against Miami, with the former playing every snap and the latter playing all but four. Phillips was on the field for 33 of the 54 defensive snaps (61 percent).
“We’re always talking to each other,” Phillips said. “Like, in the meeting room, our seats are right next to each other just so when the coach is talking, we can kind of whisper about how we see certain adjustments and just make sure that we’re on the same page. And when we get out in the game, it’s no secrets. If I see something, I tell the other two, and vice versa.”
Though the Patriots’ secondary gave up chunk plays on slants and deep shots against the Dolphins, their safeties held up well in coverage. Between the three of them, Phillips, McCourty and Dugger allowed just two catches on six targets for 3 yards in the loss, per PFF.