The Patriots secondary came into focus again after Sunday's win over Jacksonville.
It was impossible not to notice all the personnel shuffling that went on in the backend of the defense because it began at kickoff.
With Alfonzo Dennard inactive, cornerback-turned-safety Devin McCourty returned to left corner. Aqib Talib, active but battling a hip injury, played just eight snaps. Marquice Cole got significant time in the slot. Patrick Chung was back at starting safety.
For all the mixing and matching, coach Bill Belichick noted Monday how important McCourty's ability to be moved around is. The player went back to corner after playing every defensive snap at safety for eight-straight games.
"Devin gives us a lot of flexibility; he's such a versatile guy. He's an excellent tackler, which makes him a candidate to play inside at safety. Of course, you know about his speed and toughness, good ball skills, and the fact that he can go outside and play competitively in this game, where we needed him, or come inside when we needed him in there at safety and give some stability back there. He's so unselfish. Hes well prepared. He's got a good set of skills for either position really, corner or safety.
"He's a total team-first player and I think thats reflected in the fact that his teammates selected him as a captain in his second year on the team. Thats pretty unusual," Belichick said. "That's the way he is; he's very unselfish and does what he needs to do or where he's needed and he does it well. Hes come through for us defensively and in the kicking game in a variety of roles."
Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia agreed.
"Obviously as a leader and a captain of our defense of our team, Devin understands that and just wants to do whatever he can to help us win. And certainly for him to be able to do that and continue to kind of be a multi-faceted player for us is very beneficial for us and a credit to his work and his preparation every week."
Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading while determined to go see Foo Fighters at Fenway Park this time around.
-- In the great news department, Hingham native Brian Boyle hears cheers at practice as he returns to work for the New Jersey Devils after his cancer diagnosis. Boyle might be wearing a Devils uniform, but he knows he has all of Boston in his corner along with many, many other corners of the hockey world.
-- There is no panic with the Maple Leafs over the slow start for Mitch Marner, who has been dropped to the fourth line in the early going.
-- Wellesley native Chris Wagner is beginning to get recognized for his big hits and physical play with the Anaheim Ducks.
-- Senators prospect and Massachusetts native Joey Daccord makes an unbelievable game-saving stop for his college team.
-- For something completely different: Greg Nicotero talks about the Walking Dead premiere, and a character thought dead that might actually still be alive.
For the first six weeks of the season, Patriots veteran linebacker David Harris was little more than an insurance policy.
At $1.25 million guaranteed this season, he was one of the pricer policies on the team, but his playing time told the story of where he stood on Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia's depth chart. His seven total defensive snaps slotted him in behind Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts and Dont'a Hightower among off-the-ball 'backers.
So when Harris saw 19 snaps -- making three tackles in the process -- against the Falcons and their speedy offensive weapons on Sunday night, it caught our attention. Here are a few of the elements that came into play, leading to Harris' increase in playing time.
1) Injuries to other Patriots linebackers created an opening for Harris. Roberts was announced as inactive prior to kickoff due to an ankle injury. Later in the night, Hightower suffered a shoulder injury that knocked him from action. That left Van Noy, Harris and Marquis Flowers as the team's linebackers in uniform. Harris got the nod over Flowers, who's primarily a special-teamer.
2) Falcons personnel called for the Patriots to use their base defense at times. The game opened with the Falcons going with a two-back set, encouraging Belichick to go with bigger personnel. The Patriots didn't have to stick with their regular group because the Falcons used primarily one-back sets over the course of the night, But even with Hightower healthy and available, what happened early in the game proved that there were certain packages that called for Harris to be on the field. He saw one early, picking up his first start as a member of the Patriots.
3) The work Harris has put in during practices and off the field allowed the Patriots coaching staff to trust him when he was called upon. Belichick has lauded Harris all season for his professionalism, and on Monday morning he continued to heap praise on the 33-year-old. "As always, I think David works hard and is very well prepared and did all of the right things that we would want him to do from an assignment standpoint," Belichick said. "He gave us some good plays, was in on a few plays. Again, handled the communication in the front well. We’ll see if we can build on it. We’ve got a lot of good play from a number of guys and he’s certainly part of that group."