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."


BEST OF BST PODCAST: Patriots advance to AFC title game vs. Jaguars


BEST OF BST PODCAST: Patriots advance to AFC title game vs. Jaguars

0:41 - Tom Curran and Albert Breer discuss some of the big takeaways from the Patriots win over the Titans in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.

4:49 - Jalen Ramsey told the fans in Jacksonville that the Jaguars would be going to the Super Bowl. Michael Holley, Tom Giles, and Kayce Smith talk about if they have a problem with what Ramsey said and if the Patriots would be using his quote as bulletin board material.

9:25 - Curran, Breer, and Giles discuss Matt Patricia and Josh McDaniels likely not returning with the Patriots as Patricia seems to be headed towards the Lions while McDaniels goes to the Colts.

14:06 - Michael Hurley joins BST to preview the Jaguars/Patriots matchup and discuss the Patriots schedule and road to the Super Bowl. 

Patriots react to Ramsey's guarantee: He should be confident


Patriots react to Ramsey's guarantee: He should be confident

FOXBORO -- Patriots players didn't seem all that bothered by Jalen Ramsey's proclamation that the Jaguars would win the AFC title game and head to Minnesota for the Super Bowl. 

"I ain't got too much to say, but y'all make sure you bring that same energy out here next week and the week after," Ramsey said in Jacksonville following his team's win in Pittsburgh. "We're going to the Super Bowl and we're going to win that (expletive). We're going to win that (expletive)."

Asked about those comments on Monday, Patriots captain Matthew Slater showed no hint of disapproval. 

"Man, that guy’s really good," Slater said. "And he should be confident, because he’s very, very good. The good Lord made that guy, and he said, ‘Let there be corner.’ And there he is. I’d be confident if I were him, as well."

Ramsey was named a First-Team All-Pro for his work on the outside opposite Second-Team All-Pro corner AJ Bouye. They make up arguably the best cornerback duo in football, and Ramsey has already established himself as one of the best at his position despite being just 23 years old and in his second pro season.

"Hey, man, Jalen Ramsey’s a good player," Patriots captain Duron Harmon said. "He talks a lot of trash. That’s part of his game, and you can’t take that away from him. He’s confident. He should be confident in his team. He has a really good football team. The top two AFC teams are left, and he’s a part of one of them.

"His approach to the game is different than ours, but we can’t knock him for it. We know they’re going to come ready to play, and we’ve just got to match their type of physicality and also just their emotion and their readiness to get ready to play."

Ramsey's best work as a trash-talker came eariler this season after he shut down Bengals wideout AJ Green. What he said about the AFC Championship was certainly a step (or several) below that in terms of its intensity, and judging by their reaction Monday, it seems to be a mere blip on the Patriots' radar.