Year One in the books: Patriots to continue to lean on Van Noy in Hightower's absence

Year One in the books: Patriots to continue to lean on Van Noy in Hightower's absence

FOXBORO -- Kyle Van Noy looked up at the digital clock hanging above the exit to the Patriots locker room, checking to see if it indeed had been a full year. Yes, sir. A full 365 days and three hours, as a matter of fact.

The date Oct. 25, 2016 holds special meaning for Van Noy because it was the day he was given a new start. It was the day he was traded from Detroit (along with a seventh-round draft pick) to New England for a sixth-round selection.

At the time, he was shocked. Not because it was the Patriots. They'd spent a lot of time on Van Noy in the build-up to the 2014 draft. He was shocked because he had been a starter for the Lions, yet in a league where trade-deadline deals are few and far between, he was shipped off to learn a new defense for a team with championship aspirations.

One year later, his life has changed. He owns a Super Bowl ring. He was given a two-year extension back in September to remain with the Patriots. And he's now a full-time player, who has seen more snaps than any Patriots defender not named Devin McCourty or Malcolm Butler.


"I'm blessed to be where I'm at," Van Noy told NBC Sports Boston. "It hasn't been easy by any means. But it's been rewarding, and I'm happy."

Van Noy is as important to the Patriots defense now as ever. With Dont'a Hightower out with a torn pec, communication duties in the middle of the field could fall on Van Noy's shoulders. There's also a chance that Van Noy, who has worn the green dot as the team's defensive play-caller, spends more time on the edge in Hightower's absence. It's something he's done before, and he recorded a half-sack in the Super Bowl after running a stunt as a defensive lineman.

"He's talented, and he's got the head space up there to play multiple positions," said Patriots safety Jordan Richards, who has spent time alongside Van Noy at the linebacker level this season.

"That may mean he's dropping into coverage more so in certain situations. We're asking him to play different positions . . . It's just the more you can do. And he's able to do a lot. That's huge for our defense."

The Patriots have other options at linebacker with Hightower out -- including Elandon Roberts, David Harris and Shea McClellin (who is eligible to return from injured reserve Week 10) -- but Van Noy provides the most in the way of versatility. And the sheer number of snaps he's seen since his arrival a year ago makes him perhaps the best option to serve as the quarterback in the front-seven.

One of the illustrations of Van Noy's understanding of the defense and his role in it came in Sunday's win over the Falcons. On a fourth-down play at the goal line, he dropped Taylor Gabriel five yards behind the line of scrimmage on a jet sweep, forcing a turnover on downs. It was his second tackle for a loss in the game.

"It’s a tough play because in your goal line defense when you’re trying to stop the run down there you’re almost always in some type of man coverage principles," Belichick said this week. "So, when the receiver – Gabriel – comes across in a fast motion like that it’s almost impossible for the guy who has him in man coverage to get through all of the traffic and get over the top on everything and he’s there on the other side.

"Kyle made a great play, made a very instinctive play. He recognized the motion and then saw that the defender was a little bit behind the receiver and so he moved into position to have better leverage on the play . . . Kyle’s awareness and the quickness with which he got outside with all of the traffic so that he could kind of have a clear shot to come up the field was a real heads up play on his part."

Goal line, red zone, third down . . . Van Noy's been on the field for all of it, seeing 95 percent of his team's defensive snaps. He admits it hasn't been perfect, "but I feel like I'm playing at a high level to help the team win. At the end of the day that's what I'm all about is winning. When you win, things are good."

The communication is one area that has seen a noticeable change of late for the Patriots defense. That may be due in part to Hightower spending more time in the middle in recent weeks, but Van Noy explained that it was only a matter of time.

He knows what it's like to be the new guy in the locker room -- "My mindset was to learn the defense as fast as possible and not be the person that is making mistakes," he said of his approach last season -- and he expected it to take some time for the new acquisitions on this year's club to more fully understand their responsibilities.

"I feel like it's getting better each and every week," he said. "Guys are here longer, and they know what they're doing. There's more communication, guys are starting to know their roles in different situations. Yeah, I feel like it's getting better."

Van Noy does what he can to make sure that trend continues. He has been in Hightower's ear since his arrival ("That'll never change," he said), and teammates say he is consistently asking questions in order to soak up more information. One day he could be asking how Tedy Bruschi or Junior Seau played a certain role. The next he could be turning to the secondary to get a better feel for how to handle a particular coverage.

"Definitely a high football IQ guy," Richards said. "Part of being new is he had to learn a new system, and he did that. He did a phenomenal job of that last year, doing his best to change his vocabulary and whatnot. In the past year we've asked him to do a lot and he's always accepted every role. I think he's flourishing. He's been a leader on this defense."

The respect he's earned with what he's done since last season -- not to mention what he did during training camp with Hightower out for an extended period of time -- extends to the coaching staff as well.

"We felt like going into the season that, again, Kyle is a versatile player," Belichick said. "He’s able to do a lot of things. He can really play on the end of the line. He can pass-rush. He can play in coverage. He can play middle linebacker. He can play outside linebacker. He gives us a lot of flexibility on defense. 

"Not that you want a player to have to play five or six different positions, but sometimes in your scheme or over the course of the season things can shift a little bit, but we headed into the season thinking that he would certainly have a bigger role than he had last year just because the amount of time that he’s had to familiarize himself with our system and practice it all through the spring and all through training camp. 

"Kyle has been a very durable player. He’s out there every day. He gets better, works hard every day. He’s able to do more and he wants to do more. He’s the type of player that wants more responsibility and likes the challenges of doing different things -- coverage, pass rush, playing the run, playing on the line, playing off the line. His hard work has paid off in a lot of opportunity and a lot of production in a number of different areas. The one area that stands out is, of course . . . the number of plays that he’s on the field for."

It'll be hard for Van Noy to see any more time with Hightower out, simply because there aren't many plays this season that he's missed. But the Patriots may lean on him in other ways, whether it's trying him as the do-it-all chess piece that Hightower was, or simply leaning on him as the voice of authority in the middle of the defense. 

Exactly one year and three hours after being traded, he's comfortable with whatever is asked. 

"I feel like I've started to understand what's going on more in the defense," he said. "I'm able to change things and just be looked upon more as a leader since I've been here a year. Many think I've been here my whole career since I'm able to know the defense pretty well and the ins and outs of it. It was stressful when I first got here. Big difference now."


Energized Patriots defense forces 'critical swings' with turnovers

Energized Patriots defense forces 'critical swings' with turnovers

“We’re a blue-collar team…”

Devin McCourty didn’t hesitate when asked about the Patriots’ identity. Moments prior, McCourty and his teammates had just stomped the Oakland Raiders in Mexico City, 33-8, to run their win streak to a half-dozen games. The Pats are tied for the best record in the AFC with the Steelers

“We played at a high level,” said McCourty. “They made some plays, but I thought we executed our game plan and did exactly what we wanted to do today.”


After surrendering a 100-points per game through the first month (ok, it was only 32), the Pats defense has flexed their muscle during this stretch, allowing 12.5 points per game, which would be the best in the NFL were this a season-long thing. We’re not looking at the same unit even though the personnel is largely the same. If anything, from a talent-level, this defense has less skill than it did when the season started. Their best player, Dont'a Hightower, is out for the year, lost during the first win of this 6-game streak. They’ve also survived three-game absences from $31-million cornerback Stephon Gilmore and their most consistent interior defender, tackle Malcom Brown. Yet the defense keeps showing up, keeps improving and its confidence is growing by leaps and bounds.

“We’re just playing together…we’re kind of figuring that out,” said McCourty. “We’re understanding how we need to prepare, how we need to practice, whether it’s a hard, full-padded practice, whether it’s a walkthrough, we know what we need to do on each of those days and when we do that, we give ourselves a chance. You’re seeing that on Sundays. Everyone running around, everyone knows their job and it’s all about execution.”

“I thought our players gave a great effort tonight,” said Bill Belichick. “We came out and performed well early, throughout the game and played really good situational football.”

The Pats were opportunistic, forcing three turnovers, including one in a huge spot, when Marquis Flowers stripped the ball from wideout Seth Roberts as the Raiders were knocking on the door. It was 14-0 at the time, and Oakland had life. Second-year cornerback Jon Jones battled Roberts, Flowers popped the ball free and safety Pat Chung pounced on it. Instead of milking the clock and heading into halftime up two scores, the Pats turned that fumble into points, driving to midfield before Steven Gostkowski kicked a career-long 62 yarder. That further energized a Pats team that was already surging.

“It’s something we talk about every week,” said McCourty. “We’re playing solid defense, executing the game plan, but changing the game with turnovers - you know, even Duron’s interception was a third down so it was kind of like a punt. The energy that brings - when the offense takes the field after we get a turnover - that’s huge. And then with them driving again in the red area before the half is what we talked about, getting that stop.”

“We had some real critical swings with those turnovers,” admired Tom Brady, a chief beneficiary of those change in possessions.

Earlier this week, I asked McCourty if he got a sense that the team was coming together at the tail end of their stay in Colorado Springs. He smiled and joked initially, but you could sense the veteran safety can see and feel what the rest of the league is now a witness to.

“I hope so. I mean, it’d probably be terrible if I say yeah and then we go on a five-game losing streak. I can see the headline: ‘McCourty was wrong.’ So, no, I think we understand how the season starts to pick up. You know, each game means more. We understand that seven wins (now 8) doesn’t mean anything. We have to continue to get better. So, I think why we end up usually improving is because it’s the understanding of there’s no tomorrow.”

The defense ordered that Code Red after losing to Carolina in Week 4, and since then, they have worked harder, worked longer and cleaned up so many of the issues that ailed them that opening month. It’s a credit to the players, “they won’ the game tonight,” said Belichick, and the coaching staff as well. if you’ve followed this team over the years, you know even now, they’re not satisfied. There are “things to work on” added Belichick and they’ll start that work on the flight home from Mexico City to Foxboro. 


No doubter: Gostkowski knew he wouldn't be short on record-setting kick

No doubter: Gostkowski knew he wouldn't be short on record-setting kick

The Raiders gave Stephen Gostkowski plenty of time to think about the 62-yard kick he was about to line up when they called a timeout just before the end of the first half. Didn't matter. Gostkowski returned to his spot, watched a good snap turn into a good hold, which turned into a Patriots record.

It was the longest field goal in Patriots history, making it the longest in Stephen Gostkowski's career as he bested his previous record of 58 yards set earlier this season. It was also the perfect exclamation point to a perfect day for Gostkowski, who went four-for-four on field goals and three-for-three on extra points in his team's 33-8 win over the Raiders in Mexico City. 

When asked about the half-ending kick, Gostkowski credited his teammates for putting him in position to kick it. They got from their own seven-yard line with 33 seconds left to the Raiders 45-yard line with five seconds remaining. A 20-yard run by Dion Lewis and completions to Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski did the trick. 


"I think every time I kick a long kick, it's Gronk who makes the catch right beforehand," Gostkowski told reporters. "It's a nice little polish connection. It was cool. You can wait your whole career and not get a kick like that. It's a very opportunistic job. You're only as good as the opportunities you get. I got a good opportunity, and I'm glad I took advantage of it."

The longest kick Gostkowski tried in warmups was from 60 yards away but he had no concerns about trying to make something longer. Having kicked at altitude all week at the Air Force Academy, he knew his range would be better than it usually is. 

"I don't usually go past 60 in warmups," he said. "I hit one and I made it by a good bit. I knew that coming up short -- if I hit it good -- probably wasn't going to happen. Warm weather, altitude, the ball is going to fly. I just tried to concentrate on getting a good foot on it , making sure it stayed straight enough. Got the opportunity, took advantage of it. It's exciting for the whole team."

Gostkowski also used the extra oomph he had in Mexico City to boot six of his seven kickoffs for touchbacks, keeping the NFL's leading return man Cordarrelle Patterson (30.8 yards per return) from burning the Patriots in that phase.