The New England Patriots held Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills to one touchdown and 10 total touchdowns Monday night. And they did it without one of their best and most versatile defensive players.
Starting safety Kyle Dugger was unavailable for the AFC East matchup after testing positive for COVID-19 earlier in the week, removing a key piece from New England’s secondary. Dugger entered Week 13 as the Patriots’ leading tackler, having played 81.3% of their defensive snaps.
The Patriots don’t have a 1-for-1 replacement for Dugger on their roster — no one can replicate his rare blend of athleticism and physicality — and filling his void wasn’t a one-man job. But one defensive back saw a significant uptick in playing time in his absence.
That was Myles Bryant, who made his first NFL start in the Patriots’ 14-10 victory at Highmark Stadium.
Bryant was on the field for all but four of New England’s 58 defensive snaps — a career-high 93% — and provided one of the game’s biggest plays, breaking up an Allen pass on fourth-and-14 to seal the win.
Head coach Bill Belichick was quick to point out that Bryant and Dugger play different defensive roles, and that safeties Devin McCourty and Adrian Phillips took on most of the latter’s usual responsibilities. But Belichick raved about Bryant’s instincts and football IQ, saying the undersized second-year DB has earned the trust of his veteran teammates.
“His instinctiveness shows up in practice a lot, and it’s shown up in games a lot, too,” Belichick said Tuesday morning in a video conference. “But it’s the kind of thing where until you see it repetitively in games — sometimes it can be (one way in) practice and it’s a little bit different in the game — but Myles plays just as instinctively and fast in games as he does in practice. He’s an excellent communicator, he anticipates well and works well with his teammates so that he puts himself and his teammates in the best position we can be in on certain formations and looks and coverages and those things.
“He does a good job of understanding what we’re trying to do and where the threats are, and a lot of times when he’s not threatened, he’s able to help out somewhere else. It’s one of those traits that you teach, but some guys have a better knack and feel for it than others, and he has a real good feel for it, especially for a relatively young and inexperienced player. Although after two years here, I think everyone has a lot of confidence in him always doing the right thing in every situation.”
Bryant played mostly as a slot defender against Buffalo (45 snaps, per Pro Football Focus) but also lined up at free safety (three snaps), wide cornerback (three snaps) and in the box (three snaps) on occasion. When the Patriots used man-to-man coverage, he was primarily responsible for tracking Bills slot receiver Cole Beasley, who finished with one catch on three targets for 11 yards.
Phillips picked up the bulk of Dugger’s coverage duties against tight ends, batting two third-down passes out of Dawson Knox’s hands. He and Bryant closed out the game with back-to-back red-zone PBUs.
The instincts Belichick lauded were evident on Bryant’s final breakup. He was covering Beasley on the play but broke off toward receiver Gabriel Davis after he saw Allen release the ball. Davis had a half-step on cornerback Jalen Mills in the end zone, but Bryant lunged and swatted the pass down before it could reach its target.
“He and Kyle don’t really have the same roles, but Myles did a good job for us, as he always does,” Belichick said. “He’s a smart, dependable player that is very instinctive and has made a lot of big plays for us in the games that he’s played in, which has been a decent number here in the last two years. … Myles was in there a lot on Beasley, and that was a big matchup for us. (We played) a decent amount of zone, as well, so it wasn’t a straight 1-on-1 matchup. But all those players did a good job.”
Promoted from the practice squad following Jonathan Jones’ season-ending shoulder injury, Bryant has been the Patriots’ top slot corner since Week 7. The 2020 undrafted free agent has garnered rave reviews from players like McCourty, who said in October the Patriots are “all fully confident when Myles gets in there.”
Though he would have preferred to have Dugger active, McCourty said he knew Bryant — who had some issues in man coverage in recent weeks — would be able to handle the heavier workload.
“I’d rather have my guy Dugg,” McCourty told reporters after Monday’s game. “Leading tackler — we missed Dugg out here (Monday night). Even though we played well, Dugg’s presence would have definitely been felt. But credit to Myles. I’ve said it all season: Myles is a guy that’s going to step into any role and perform, whether that’s playing Star or playing corner. He played some free safety (Monday), played all over the field. I think the flexibility that we have within our secondary, if we lose a guy, if something comes up, to be able to just jump and do different things. …
“Obviously, you see it week in and week out with AP and Dugg, but Myles has that same type of versatility, and I think for us as a defense, we kind of saw during the week. With the COVID situation, we didn’t know what was going to happen with Dugg, and as we were preparing, we were like, hey, man, when Myles is out there, we’re not going to switch personnel groups. He just becomes the third safety or the Star, and we’re going to go from there. It gave us some things that we could do (against Buffalo) that normally we wouldn’t. But again, I want it to be known that it’ll be good to get Dugg back.”
McCourty played every snap Monday night, and Phillips went wire-to-wire before suffering an injury and missing the final play. With the Patriots now on their bye week, Dugger should be able to return in time for their Week 15 matchup with the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday, Dec. 18.
“We’ll be happy to get Kyle back, hopefully next week for Indianapolis,” Belichick said. “We could certainly always use him.”