Bill Belichick wanted to make sure no one had forgotten about his safeties.
En route to shutting out the Falcons, 25-0, Belichick's defense had held the Falcons to 2.5 yards per carry. Of Atlanta's 16 rushing attempts, 12 went for three yards or less. It was a dominant performance by New England's front, with Ja'Whaun Bentley, Dont'a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Matt Judon all helping to stuff ball-carriers at different points.
How much of an emotional lift do the Patriots get when their linebackers play as physically as they did Thursday night, Belichick was asked afterward?
“I think we did a good job," Belichick said. "I think our fronts played quite physically. [Adrian] Philips and [Kyle] Dugger have a pretty physical presence at safety.”
That's not a mistake on Belichick's part. Can't forget about those safeties. Because the combination of coverage and running-game toughness they provide to the Patriots defense is one of the reasons why it has been one of the most productive in the NFL in recent weeks.
Take Thursday's game, for example.
Phillips was in on a fourth-down run-stuff in the third quarter that led to a turnover on downs. He started the game by stoning a Falcons fullback in the backfield on a first-down run and ended it with his fourth interception of the season.
Dugger, meanwhile, made two bone-ratting open-field tackles in the flat on Matt Ryan passes. He also broke up a pass intended for rookie tight end sensation Kyle Pitts on the first third down of the game. Later, he carried Pitts up the seam and encouraged Pitts to throttle-down his route because he was so well-covered. Ryan lobbed a pass in that direction anyway, and it was picked easily by Devin McCourty.
Phillips and Dugger have been particularly important to New England's strategy during their five-game winning streak. As the team has become more of a zone defense -- they're playing over 70 percent zone coverages during that span, per Pro Football Focus, and they played over 80 percent zone in Atlanta -- the do-it-all safeties can be used as interchangeable pieces in the secondary as well as at the linebacker level.
How, you ask? Especially when Phillips is 5-foot-10, 210 pounds and Dugger is 6-foot-2, 220, how can they hold up against linemen who weigh 100 pounds more than they do?
Because both, as Belichick indicated after the Falcons game, are among his defense's most physical players.
Dugger is third among all NFL safeties with 290 snaps in the box this season, according to PFF. Phillips is fifth (259). Phillips is second in the league among safeties in terms of his edge snaps -- at the end of the line of scrimmage -- with 106. Dugger is 11th (48).
But Dugger (37) and Phillips (34) are also No. 2 and No. 3 among safeties in terms of their snaps as boundary corners. Headed into Thursday's game, according to NFL Media's Daniel Jeremiah, they both had seen extensive time in the slot (Dugger 25 percent, Phillips 18 percent) and at free safety (Phillips 25 percent, Dugger 17 percent) as well.
Part-time linebackers. Part-time corners. Part-time safeties. Full-time apples of Belichick's eye.
They align almost everywhere. They do almost everything. And when used in New England's three-safety "big nickel" package, they give away very little to opposing quarterbacks looking for pre-snap clues since both are often on the move just before the snap.
They may start in the box and sprint to a deep safety position. Or they may start deep and buzz down into the box. Or they may align like an outside linebacker, or a "Will" linebacker, and the quarterback is left to figure out what it all means.
The Patriots haven't allowed an opponent to score on 19 straight possessions. Since their five-game winning streak began, according to The Athletic, they're first in EPA per play allowed, third in dropback success rate allowed and fifth in rush success rate allowed. In their last three games, the Patriots are allowing just 3.6 yards per carry.
And the safeties have been critical to that run.
Despite playing the third-fewest snaps of base defense in the NFL, per The Athletic, they remain stout against the run thanks in part to their hard-hitting safeties. Dugger (50 percent) and Phillips (45 percent) are playing about half their snaps in the box, and they have about as many highlight-reel plays near the line of scrimmage as they do in coverage.
For players their size, it requires explosiveness, sound fundamentals, and an affinity for contact that can't be coached.
"My mindset is I gotta do my job," Phillips said back in September. "If my job is to pull off a double-team and get in that gap, whatever gap it is, then I have to do that. You win some, you lose some. There's definitely been times that I've lost. There's been times that I've won. But my main mindset is I just have to do my job.
"If my job calls for me to go head-up with that tackle, I'm gonna go head-up with him. If I see some space during the play that will allow me to make him miss, then I'm gonna take that. But it just depends on what situation I'm in at that moment."
Dugger, in just his second season out of Division 2 Lenoir-Rhyne, has taken a similar approach.
"Dugg's like a Swiss Army knife," McCourty said recently. "I mean, we laugh at the fact that Dugg goes down in there and in the box, in the bubble, and takes two steps and hits a lineman and stalemates him. Me and AP will look at him like, 'Bro, you didn't even look like you saw the lineman coming.' And he's like, 'I don't know. Just hitting.'
"It's so quiet, doesn't think anything of it. I ask him every week how he ended up as a D2 player because he's a physical freak."
It was understood that Dugger was one of the best pound-for-pound athletes in the draft back in 2020. But it wasn't clear how exactly that athleticism would manifest itself. Some may have predicted interceptions. Or hellacious special-teams tackles.
It would've been harder to envision him launching offensive linemen into opposing backfields -- shedding blockers by using a "flipper" technique often employed by 'backers, leading with the shoulder and separating by driving an arm up through the block -- like he has an additional 30 pounds on his frame.
"That's King Dugg, man," Hightower said last week. "We call him King Dugg for a reason. It's kinda hard to put tabs on players like that. Just a freak athlete. He's a smart dude. I think it's wild. We talk all the time about using the flipper and stuff in the linebacker room. Then you see Dugg go out there, he's doing it on kickoff return, 320-330 pound linemen.
"You go around, you look in the league, there's a lot of linebackers that's not doing that. Watch out. You won't see too many receivers in the league probably trying to crack Dugger. They'll definitely probably put a tight end or a lineman on him. I think that says a lot about how he plays. And I think that says a lot about how coaches view that and respect how hard he plays."
Together, Dugger and Phillips are Belichick's version of a cheat code, like having two queen pieces on a chess board. They provide him solutions as he and his staff mold their scheme on a week-to-week basis depending on the opponent.
If they're facing a tight-end heavy offense (as they did against the Browns and will against the Titans) they have matchup options. If they're seeing a pass-happy team (like the Bills) but want to make sure they're covered against the run on early downs, they have answers.
It all comes back to the overwhelming physicality that both Dugger and Phillips have demonstrated on a consistent basis. It belies their labels as defensive backs and allows them to be deployed in a variety of manners.
There's a reason Belichick went out of his way to remind reporters Thursday night of the toughness that duo has exhibited: It's one of the reasons the Patriots defense has elevated itself to become one of the league's best.