Matt Lengel made good on his first-ever target as a pro, catching Tom Brady's pass from 18-yards out and falling in the end zone for a touchdown in a 41-3 Patriots win over the Jets.
The play was the culmination of a great deal of work on the part of the former Bengals practice-squadder who was signed to the Patriots active roster on Nov. 2. But it may have never happened had it not been for Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio and his staff spotting Lengel as a depth option at tight end.
The Patriots had just traded AJ Derby to the Broncos for a fifth-round draft pick, and Lengel was seen as the next best option despite having never played in an NFL game after a year and a half in the league.
"I think Nick and his staff deserve a lot of credit for identifying Matt," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said during a conference call on Monday. "Again, there wasn’t a lot to go on. There are no regular season games, there’s just preseason and college film if you want to go back to that.
"He’s obviously long and you can see him playing in preseason. Not a lot early because Cincinnati has pretty good depth at tight end. He wasn’t at the top of that rotation but a young player to work with at that position that has some physical qualities; length, size, runs well, caught the ball well in some limited observation that we had."
That was all the Patriots needed. They signed him, catching Lengel by surprise, and worked him out for a few weeks before having him make his regular-season debut in a win over the Niners. He was inactive for Week 12, but since then he has played in 10, 9, 15 and 24 offensive snaps in New England's last four games.
Belichick explained that the Patriots have learned a great deal more about Lengel since bringing him into the building.
"When you have a player on the field every day, and you throw to him every day, and you watch him block every day, you watch him learn his assignments and then go out and practice, ou definitely learn a lot more about the player," Belichick said. "And I think coach [Brian] Daboll has done a good job of moving that along, moving that whole process along. I know Marty [Martellus Bennett] and Rob [Gronkowski] were both really good in working with him and helping him understand some of the finer points of certain plays and techniques and so forth.
"But Matt's absorbed it. He works hard and he listens well and he tries to do what he's instructed to do and he puts a lot of effort into it. If a player listens and he understands and then he works hard and commits to try and do it then it’s almost impossible for him not to improve and get better. Matt has, and that’s what has happened."
Remembering Northeastern football: Lengel's story is relatively unique in that he was a member of Northeastern University's football program before it folded, later transferring to Eastern Kentucky. It wasn't all that long ago, however, that Belichick recalled scouting Northeastern players and getting to know former head coach and athletic director Barry Gallup.
Gallup was a longtime assistant at Boston College before becoming Northeastern's head coach. He was with the Huskies from 1991-99 and now works at BC as senior associate athletic director.
"I mean Coach Gallup has just been a tremendous fixture in college football in this area," Belichick said. "It would be impossible for me to say enough good things about him and what an outstanding person and coach I think he is, and how much he has meant to so many young people that he has interacted with, what a great example he sets, and how caring he is for the players.
"And, really . . . I'd say I think everybody that knows him feels a real love and a personal friendship with him. He's a great guy."