Patriots

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.

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"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."

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Five non-Brady storylines to track as Patriots host Eagles in Week 2 of preseason

Five non-Brady storylines to track as Patriots host Eagles in Week 2 of preseason

Thursday night should be Tom Brady's night. That's the plan, at least, according to him. 

That's not to say he'll have the spotlight all to himself against the Eagles, or that that's what he wants. But if he plays at all, there will be boatloads of attention paid to every snap he receives. They'll be his first plays he gets against another opponent since Super Bowl LII, and they'll just so happen to come against the team that beat him back in February. 

PATRIOTS VS. EAGLES

We went over the various aspects of Brady's night we'll be watching closely here, if Bill Belichick decides he wants Brady to play at all. But we can't train our focus on No. 12 in blue all night, and we know you won't either. So here are five more storylines -- non-Brady storylines -- to track when the Patriots host the Eagles at Gillette Stadium. 

DECKER CATCHING ON?

Eric Decker had one of the worst starts to a practice of any Patriots receiver this summer just a few days ago. He pushed off in a one-on-one drill. He dropped a pass in a one-on-one drill. Soon thereafter, he dropped two more passes when there wasn't a defender in sight. Not what you're looking for. Decker did, however, bounce back. And for him that was encouraging. Thursday will give the newest Patriots receiver another opportunity to show that he's gaining in his understanding of the playbook. If that's coming along, the fundamentals -- like playing penalty-free and catching the football -- should follow. Given the state of the receiver position in Foxboro at the moment, the Patriots may need to lean on Decker more than they would like. They'll certainly give him some time to figure things out, but he'll have to continue to show progress, as he did during that up-and-down (or down-and-up) session earlier in the week. 

PATRIOTS HAVE THEIR (BIG) BACK?

There's an opportunity here. The Patriots have gone without both Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead for the last handful of practices, meaning there will be reps galore for the likes of Mike Gillislee, Jeremy Hill, Ralph Webb and Brandon Bolden. All four (plus James White) saw action offensively in the preseason opener against the Redskins. Of that group, I think the most fascinating battle is between Gillislee and Hill. It was Hill who looked the strongest last week (51 yards on 11 carries), but he looked limited at times in practice this week. Is he dealing with something that could drop his snap count Thursday? Will that leave the door open for Gillislee, who had a ho-hum night (43 yards on 14 carries) last week? Hill looks like the more capable pass-catcher and the more kicking-game friendly (three first-team special teams units against Washington) back at the moment. 

McCOURTY'S CHANCE TO SHINE?

The Patriots held Jason McCourty out of preseason game No. 1. He didn't have much of an answer as to why that was the case, but he didn't seem too concerned when he spoke to reporters on Sunday. On Monday and Tuesday, he was taking snaps with the first-team defense. Will that continue to be the case against the Eagles? McCourty could be in the running for the No. 2 corner role -- Eric Rowe has held that down for most of camp -- and might be able to use a strong performance against Philly as a springboard to greater consideration from the coaching staff to be a starter. In competitive periods Monday and Tuesday, McCourty looked good. He picked off a Brian Hoyer pass intended for Phillip Dorsett in one-on-ones and broke up another intended for Rob Gronkowski near the goal line. He said he's been doing his best to teach the young corners he's in competition with -- JC Jackson, Keion Crossen and Ryan Lewis have all stood out at different points this summer -- but Thursday could be his night. 

BENTLEY SPEEDING TO A ROSTER SPOT?

Inside the Patriots facilities, Ja'Whaun Bentley has an argument as the most pleasantly surprising player of training camp. As a fifth-round pick, he wasn't guaranteed a roster spot . . . but he now seems to have a jump on one. After a strong performance against Washington -- where he showcased good instincts, an ability to relay play-calls, confident pre-snap communication, and competency in coverage -- we landed him on our first 53-man roster projection and highlighted his skill set in our "Long Shot" series. A three-year captain at Purdue, Bentley isn't a next-level athlete, but he has the potential to be a middle-of-the-defense voice on a unit that could be enticed to deploy its best communicator, Dont'a Hightower, on the edge. "Eager to learn," Hightower said of Bentley this week. "He’s really become a sponge. First dude in the classroom, last one out, always asking questions. Nice-sized kid, good on his feet. He’s going to be a good ballplayer."

TIME TO TACKLE THE ISSUE AT HAND?

The Patriots had nine missed tackles against the Redskins last week, and two more were wiped out due to penalties. That kind of thing will drive a coaching staff nuts, but in some ways it's to be expected this time of year. In camp, the Patriots almost never have any periods where players are tackled to the ground. (Goal-line run periods are probably the closest thing to "live" for Belichick's club, and those 22-car pile-ups are rare.) The result is a team that's not accustomed to tackling, trying to tackle in a preseason game that (for some) doesn't really matter. It can get ugly out there, and Belichick knows it. "Running and tackling are two skills that you don’t work on from the end of the season until pretty much the first preseason game. You can do a little drill work, but it’s not quite the same. So, any player that’s involved in any of those, running or tackling, they might have done it before, but they haven’t done it recently, and they haven’t done it at the timing and speed that it occurs in the game. So, there’s an adjustment, a break-in period for all of us, and that’s part of what preseason games are for . . . We can improve our tackling. We can certainly improve our running and breaking tackles. So, that’s part of the process."

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