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More than X's and O's: Patricia inspires Patriots defense

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More than X's and O's: Patricia inspires Patriots defense

FOXBORO -- It's almost as though Matt Patricia can't help himself. Before every Patriots game, the team's defensive coordinator enthusiastically bounces from one player to the next as they stretch before kickoff.

He slaps their hands, hugs them, and grabs their helmets, encouraging them through their ear holes. Defensive players, offensive players, special teamers -- he doesn't discriminate. They all get similar treatment. At times he'll go nose-to-facemask with someone, giving his words added oomph.

One of Patricia's great strengths as a coach is his understanding of X's and O's, but he never has much to say in that regard just minutes before a given game. He's more concerned with pushing people to play fast and worry-free. He's busy reminding them that this is their day. 

It will be the same way on Sunday night before the Patriots take on the Broncos at Mile High Stadium.

"It's just, 'We put in all the work, man,' " Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower said. "He's always talking about putting in the work early in the week, and then just going out and having fun."

Apparently, the message has resonated. After a personnel overhaul during the offseason, Patricia has helped the Patriots defense perform as one of the stingiest units in the NFL. Through 10 games, the team has allowed 18.2 points per game, which is the best mark in the league.

As the team's defensive signal-caller and coach Bill Belichick's right-hand man on that side of the ball, Patricia is widely regarded as one of the most intelligent individuals in the organization. Adding to his reputation is the image he's cultivated as somewhat of a reclusive football genius, with his gnarly beard and his scouting-report driven weekly conference calls with reporters.

Further cementing him as football's version of a mad scientist was a picture that surfaced on Barstool Sports, taken in the days leading up to Super Bowl XLIX in Arizona. In it, he sat at a desk surrounded by scattered papers and opened cans of Diet Mountain Dew, coming off as someone who schemes up blitz packages on little sleep, face aglow from the light of multiple computer screens.

There's more to Patricia than that, though, players say, and his pregame handshake ritual is just a brief glimpse into the enthusiasm with which he attacks his job on a daily basis.

Those who work with him closely describe him as a motivator and a friend. They explain that he's intensely focused, but possesses a wry sense of humor. He spends inordinate amounts of time grinding out game plans, but makes it clear that he doesn't see his players as inanimate pieces on a chess board. He knows their families, and they say he genuinely cares about their lives off the field.

Players talk openly about how they're inspired by, and love, the coach they call "Matty P."

"Just as a man, he's somebody you look up to because he loves the game," said rookie safety Jordan Richards. "He loves each and every one of us as football players, as guys on this team, but also as just men. Whether we're husbands, sons, dads, all that stuff. I think that's what takes him to the next level in terms of being a coach. How much he loves the game and how much he's excited for us to go out and show what we can do."

When Patricia initially arrived to New England, he wasn't necessarily one of the team's emotional compasses. What he was, though, was smart as hell.

Patricia worked his way up the coaching ladder for a half-dozen years in the college ranks before getting his NFL shot. An aeronautical engineering major and offensive lineman at RPI in the early 1990s, Patricia began what promised to be a lucrative career as an engineer for two years before he could no longer resist football's pull. He gave up his gig to work for much less pay as an assistant at Amherst College and then at Syracuse. In 2004, a job opened with the Patriots and he jumped.

Patricia won a ring in his first season as an offensive assistant and then quickly moved from one position to the next, serving as an offensive line assistant, linebackers coach -- a role he held for five years -- and safeties coach before being named to his current position in the spring of 2012.

All the while, Patricia garnered more and more responsibility thanks to his remarkable memory and his ability to comprehensively relay what he had learned after digesting massive amounts of information.

Even his boss, who has long been renowned as a football genius himself, has been floored by Patricia's mental processes.

"He's really smart," Belichick said last week. "This guy could probably build a plane and fly it. Like, this guy is smart smart. He’s got great recall and a really high IQ level in terms of just processing a lot of information.

"He’s the kind of guy that he’s got 10 projects going at once and then you’re like, 'Hey, Matt. Can you do this and do that?' 'Oh yeah, no problem.' He's got 12 going at once. Some of us can only handle barely one thing at a time. He’s the type of guy that can keep a lot of balls in the air."

One of those many responsibilities, consider it his own side project, is to get the most out of his players with little verbal prods. He's reluctant to acknowledge it -- "I maybe feed off them a little bit more than they feed off of me," he said last week -- but they do.

"We know each other so well, he knows what to say to me," said defensive end Rob Ninkovich, who played under Patricia as a linebacker when he arrived in the organization in 2009.

"Everyone's got a certain button. He knows how to hit one of my buttons and I get going, and I look at him and I say, 'How was that?' And he'll say, 'Not good enough,' or, 'You can do better.' Then I try to go out there and do the best that I can for him."

What Patricia has done with the Patriots defense this season has perhaps been his best work to date. As young players like Hightower, Jamie Collins, Chandler Jones and Malcolm Butler enter into their primes, and with leadership from players like Ninkovich and safety Devin McCourty, the team has thrived without No. 1 corner Darrelle Revis, who chose greener financial pastures with the Jets in the offseason. It has also absorbed the losses of corners Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington as well as defensive tackle and captain Vince Wilfork.

The unit understood it had few believers outside of 1 Patriot Place before the season and after giving up nearly 500 yards of total offense to the Steelers in Week 1. But Patricia helped the group stay the course.

"I think this place kind of forms or bonds you together," McCourty said. "Whether it be the negativity on the outside or different things that happen within this season, especially the last couple years, it seems like it's always something that happens. I think that brings us closer. And defensively, I think he really takes on that role. 'I'm the leader. It's my job to let these guys know that together, we're still a great group. We can do this. We can do that. We can accomplish a lot.' I think he really takes that leadership role as a defensive coordinator."

It may seem curious that Patricia, a former Division 3 football player who didn't start until his third year at RPI, has these professionals responding to him so passionately. Like Belichick, he has never had the resume as an athlete to immediately command respect of those he's coached.

But the time Patricia spends on the job shows just how serious he is about helping players be at their best.

McCourty remembered having to make his way to the Patriots facilities on a recent Tuesday night, when players are typically off and the building is generally quiet. It was there that he ran into Patricia, working away on that week's plan.

"I always admire people's hard work," McCourty said. "I think, for me, it's an everyday thing, seeing him come in and seeing what's invested. What you put your time and effort into shows what you really care about. Seeing that side, that shows me everything."

That side of Patricia has been there since his very first coaching job, when he served as a graduate assistant for his alma mater. His head coach, Joe King, describes him as having "old-fashioned values." They shined through as a player, when he transformed himself in the weight room to become a contributor on a team that won three ECAC titles during his four years there, and they continued to show up when he was an intern-level coach.

He worked in recruiting and ran study halls. He was an academic adviser and a tutor. He stayed late, and for next to nothing, but King said, "that's just the way he was."

"He was gonna out-work you," King added. "He was gonna find a way to be successful. It helps to be as smart as he is, but he'll put more time in than anyone else, too."

That drive hasn't waned, his co-workers insist, and it continues to earn him respect now 19 years later.

"He’s a blue-collar guy," Belichick said. "Certainly wasn’t born with a silver spoon. Like most players. They’re just working for everything. Working his way up through, I think he has an appreciation for that, and I think he relates well to other guys who are doing the same thing."

That's the case even with the players Patricia doesn't coach.

"That's one of my guys," running back LeGarrette Blount said with a smile. "He's a cool, laid-back dude, man. He's funny. He's personable. He's probably one of the funniest coaches here . . . On a personal level, I love that man to death."

Blount says he knows he's not alone, and that Patricia feels the same way about the team's players en masse.

"You can just tell in his personality," Blount said. "How he acts towards us. How he treats us. How personal he is with each of us. You can just tell. You can just tell. He's not going to just come up and say, 'Hey, man. I love you.' But you can just tell by his actions. How he treats us. How he talks to us. How he is around us."

Patricia has an innate sense of what the team needs, players say. When it's tough love, he can dole it out with the best of them. When it's a laugh, he's just as ready.

"Kind of like Bill, he has a funny way of joking at you," Hightower said. "It's usually at a rookie, like, 'What the hell are you doing?' He'll jump on them, but then he's kind of like looking at us, laughing it off. That's more or less what it's about. He does it whenever it's needed. Whenever moods are kind of weak and dim he kind of sparks things up."

Inside Gillette Stadium, where a great deal is asked of the players and the coaches, that ability to bring levity to the workplace doesn't go unappreciated.

"Sometimes being here is a hard place to work," Hightower added, "but he's definitely one of the people who makes it a little easier."

For those who look closely enough, Patricia's emotional impact on the team has been driven home several times this year already.

When Dion Lewis walked off the field in Week 9 against Washington, believing he had a significant knee injury, players noticed that Patricia found Lewis on his way to the locker room and hugged him by the helmet, unafraid to try to console a player whose season was over in front of television cameras and thousands of fans.

When quarterback Tom Brady sat inside the visitor's locker room at MetLife Stadium, seemingly down after a close win over the Giants, Patricia went in for a bear hug. His beard in Brady's face, he appeared to do his best to encourage the player he competes against every day in practice.

Back before the season, when NFL Network released its "Do Your Job" special, Patricia could be seen floating around the field after the Super Bowl -- with exponentially more bounce than even his typically-energetic pregame routine -- hugging McCourty and safeties coach Brian Flores, telling them he loved them.

"You're bonded for life with that win," Patricia told NFL Network. "That's a family atmosphere. That's what makes it so special, and that's why you got a bunch of guys running out there telling them they love each other."

"It's genuine," Hightower said. "You know, sometimes you can kind of smell [expletive]. But you can definitely feel it from Matty P. that it's not. He cares about us. He cares about what we do."

Far more than a quiet puppet master, diagnosing offensive tendencies and pulling the appropriate strings, Patricia's role with the team extends beyond whatever unusual football acumen he may possess. Patriots players respect the time he puts in, as they do the emotion and the energy that he brings to his job every day.

Judging by the results, they've responded in kind.

"At the end of the day," McCourty said, "you realize how much you really appreciate that because I don't think it's like that everywhere . . . I don't think everywhere a defensive coordinator is willing to give what he gives just for us as players to go out and try to be effective."

Next Pats Podcast: Matthew Slater reflects on social unrest within U.S. and NFL

Next Pats Podcast: Matthew Slater reflects on social unrest within U.S. and NFL

As much as we'd love to talk football, it has taken a back seat to the conversations that need to be had about George Floyd's murder and the racial injustices that remain prevalent in the United States.

The "Black Lives Matter" movement has spread across the country with protests advocating for justice and racial equality. It has impacted the world of sports, with countless athletes using their platforms to let their voices be heard. NFL players even sent a strong message to the league with a video stating what they wanted to hear it say regarding the oppression of African Americans.

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On a brand new episode of the Next Pats Podcast, New England Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater joined Phil Perry to discuss the state of the nation.

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Slater covered a variety of important topics in the episode. But one that particularly stood out was his explanation of how if the country operated like an NFL locker room, it would be a more inclusive place.

"It is a very unique place. A locker room setting -- you know, if our country operated and moved like a locker room, man it would be a beautiful thing," Slater said. "I'm not saying it's perfect, I'm not saying we've got it all figured out, but what a unique space where people from all different walks of life, different belief systems and things of that nature to work toward a common goal.

"And there's automatic respect that comes with the fact that you have a jersey and a helmet, and you're one of us. So I'm appreciative of that and I think now is a time for us to maybe forge those bonds even deeper. Guys that maybe hear personal stories and maybe experience this from their teammates have a different appreciation for why that guy is the way he is, why he does the things that he does. And I think ultimately that's going to lead to deeper and more fruitful relationships."

If anyone knows what a healthy, inclusive locker room environment looks like, it's Slater. The 34-year-old has been a captain for the Patriots for nearly a decade and has been an admirable leader throughout his stellar NFL career.

Slater also discussed how head coach Bill Belichick has been involved in the team's discussions about recent events, his experiences living as a black man in America, and much more.

Check out more of the Next Pats Podcast on the NBC Sports Boston Podcast Network or watch on YouTube below:

Patriots Roster Reset: Rookie tight ends offer optimism after 2019 drought

Patriots Roster Reset: Rookie tight ends offer optimism after 2019 drought

What if? What if Rob Gronkowski had announced his retirement just a few days sooner, allowing the Patriots to make a legitimate play for free agent Jared Cook? 

By the time the man who is arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history decided to hang 'em up (briefly), Cook was already making plans to join the Saints. He ended up eighth among tight ends with 705 receiving yards and second with nine touchdowns.

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Meanwhile the Patriots were left to piece together that spot with the likes of Matt LaCosse, Ben Watson and Ryan Izzo.

Reluctant to invest in young players at the position since taking Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in 2010 — since then they'd only drafted Izzo (2018, seventh round), Lee Smith (2011, fifth round) and A.J. Derby (2015, sixth round) — the Patriots had arguably the least-productive tight end group in the NFL last season: 37 catches for 419 yards and two touchdowns.

They've attempted to remedy that situation. In this year's draft, they traded up to land two intriguing talents in the third round.

UCLA's Devin Asiasi is a do-it-all player with the size to move people on the line of scrimmage and the body control to draw comparisons to some of the game's elites at that position. Dalton Keene is an athletic option with experience playing out of the backfield at Virginia Tech who could be the key to unlocking snap-to-snap unpredictability for Josh McDaniels' personnel packages.

Do they enter the equation as the immediate No. 1 and 2 options there? Let's reset the depth chart.

LOCK ‘EM IN

Asiasi. Keene. That's it. Those are the locks. Given the output, it should come as no surprise that there's not a player from last year's roster who comes into this season guaranteed to have a regular-season role. 

ON THE BUBBLE

LaCosse makes sense here. He could potentially end up on the roster as a 2020 version of Alge Crumpler — a veteran who can help guide two promising rookies — because his experience level dwarfs that of others on the depth chart.

However, his experience level isn't exactly overwhelming (33 career games). If he can't stay healthy, as was the case last season, or can't win a job, he'd save the Patriots $1.3 million on the salary cap if released in camp.

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LONG SHOTS

Izzo will have to open eyes in camp or become a special teams staple in order to have a chance to make an impact. Though he showed flashes of being a capable receiver last season, that part of his game was lacking consistency. As a blocker? It was there that he was thought to be a potential contributor when drafted out of Florida State two years ago. But according to Pro Football Focus, his 44.9 run-blocking grade was second-lowest among all players at the position in 2019.

Undrafted rookies Jake Burt from Boston College and Rashod Berry from Ohio State also have to be considered in this category. Burt looks like an in-line option at 6-foot-3, 260 pounds. Berry actually played both on the defensive line and at tight end as a senior. He finished his career with 17 receptions. 

NEWCOMER TO WATCH

In what was considered a tight end class short on game-changing talent, Asiasi might've been the most gifted. Notre Dame's Cole Kmet was the first tight end taken in the draft, going off the board in the second round as the "safest" of this year's tight end crop, according to several evaluators. But when it comes to physical ability? Asiasi can "do it all," one tight ends coach told me.

Some questions about Asiasi's makeup lingered into draft weekend, helping him stay undrafted through almost three full rounds, but the Patriots may have found themselves a steal if Asiasi can make good on his on-the-field promise. Asiasi's trainer Dave Spitz, who has also worked with Browns tight end Austin Hooper and Eagles tight end Zach Ertz, spoke to NBC Sports Boston earlier this offseason.

"He has the catch radius of Austin," Spitz said. "He has the body control and awareness of Zach. And he, I think, has more bend, more wiggle, than both of them. He's a beautiful combination."

X-FACTOR

Asiasi might be the most talented addition the Patriots have made at this position in years, but Keene's versatility makes him an interesting queen-on-the-chess-board piece for Bill Belichick and McDaniels. He has enough size (6-foot-4, 253 pounds) to play in-line as a "Y" tight end. He has the movement skills to serve as more of an "F" option. He's played in the backfield before. He's served as a lead-blocker like a fullback. There are a variety of ways in which he can be deployed.

Why does that matter? Perhaps the Patriots want to use their 12-personnel package with one back and two tight ends. Perhaps, because tight ends are oftentimes glorified receivers these days, a defense will respond to that two-tight end set by matching it with an extra safety instead of a linebacker. If that's the case, Keene could flex in as a fullback and the Patriots could run a 21-personnel look at a lighter defense for an advantage. If the defense keeps linebackers on the field to check Asiasi and/or Keene, the Patriots could use them in the passing game where their athleticism should give them an advantage over a traditional second-level defender. Options.

That's what Keene provides, making him an X-factor in the truest sense if he can handle a wide range of alignments and responsibilities early in his career.