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On either side, Fletcher's a factor; Mon. notes

Posted Oct 3, 2011

At linebacker or fullback, the second-year player is gaining confidence, experience, and the trust of his coaches and teammates.

When Jerod Mayo went down with a left knee injury in the second quarter of the Oakland game, backups Gary Guyton and Dane Fletcher were needed immediately to step up and fill the significant void left by New England’s defensive signal caller.

Guyton, in his fourth NFL season, was handed the responsibility of wearing the green dot on his helmet, signifying that he has radio communication equipment in his helmet to receive information from the coaches on the sideline. He was able to step in without missing a beat because, as head coach Bill Belichick explained Monday afternoon, he always has two green dots assigned in practice – one for Mayo, the other for his backup.

Though the extent of Mayo’s injury remains unclear, it appears as if the Patriots will be without his services for at least the short term. That means Guyton will likely retain one of the green dots in practice, with the other going to Fletcher.

The assignment won’t be unfamiliar to Fletcher, who had several opportunities during training camp and the preseason to wear the dot and call the defensive signals. Fletcher, the second-year player from Montana State, said Monday he plans to draw from that valuable experience if need be.

“You have that sense that the defense is on your shoulders, somewhat,” Fletcher said of the green dot responsibilities. “With whatever’s going on with our defense right now, everybody has to help as much as possible, including myself.”

“I think Dane has taken a big jump from where he was last year,” Belichick remarked. “Last year, he came in really as a converted defensive lineman, made an impact for us in the kicking game. At other points in the year, [he] did some things situationally on defense.

“This year, he came in and played inside linebacker right from the beginning of the year. He’s way ahead of where he was last year. There’s just really no comparison. He got a good year of experience and he definitely built on that. He’s a smart guy, works hard, he’s in good condition, he’s a good athlete, runs well [and] he’s physical.

“We have a lot of confidence in Dane,” Belichick concluded. “I’m sure whatever we ask him to do, he’ll work hard to do it. I have no doubt about that.”

That has been obvious through the first month of the season. Despite playing with a cast on his right hand since August, Fletcher has actually seen his workload increase, not decrease. In fact, the inside linebacker has taken on added responsibilities on the other side of the ball as a fullback. Beginning with the season opener at Miami, Fletcher has lined up in goal-line and short-yardage packages typically to help clear the way for BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

And even with the restrictive cast, Fletcher has already seen a pass thrown his way, in the Week 1 win over Miami. The pass was overthrown, but the mere fact that his coaches had the confidence in Fletcher to call his number speaks volumes for the level of respect they have for his abilities.  

“Personally, when they put me in my role, I’ve been doing a decent job. Definitely, I can improve,” Fletcher responded when asked to self-assess four weeks into the new season.

“Wherever they see me fit is where I’ll be in this game plan.”

Belichick revealed Monday that he had the idea to use Fletcher when the team decided to release veteran Sammy Morris at the end of camp. The Patriots felt that Fletcher’s athletic skills as a linebacker would translate to the job of fullback, and just like that, the former high school tight end and undrafted rookie free agent was a two-way player in the NFL.

“They tell me to go run my face into some people, I’ll do it,” Fletcher exclaimed with a laugh.

“I picked it up pretty quickly. You know, I don’t have as many things as [quarterback Tom] Brady has going on in his head. Whatever they tell me to do, I’ll just go do that.
Yeah, they tell you a certain thing, want you to run in a certain direction and fill a hole and hit somebody on the way. So, in that sense, it’s like linebacker.”

Such versatility inevitably leads to comparisons to Mike Vrabel, a former Patriots linebacker who doubled as a tight end and caught numerous touchdown passes during New England’s Super Bowl run in the early 2000s.

While Fletcher may not have quite the receiving skills as Vrabel, about whom Belichick raved when the subject came up Monday, he is clearly capable of making plays as a pass catcher, even with his current unwanted accessory.

“It’s not foreign, no. I have a cast on, but it’s all right,” said Fletcher. “I love catching the ball, yeah.

“I watched [Vrabel] as a kid. If I could fit into that kind of a guy that he was, that would be great.”

For the time being, though, Fletcher is needed more as a blocker than a receiver, and he’s just fine with that arrangement.

“Like this last game [against Oakland],” he explained, “I got Benny in the end zone, helped with that. Anytime we score, hopefully, it’s an effective block on my part that helps the team.”

For the foreseeable future, at least, Fletcher may be asked to help the team on both sides of the ball, but more so on defense if Mayo’s injury results in a protracted absence.

“I don’t know the severity of his injury, so, I don’t know when he’s going to be back – whether it’s this week or not,” Fletcher stated. “You just game-plan for the worst and hope for the best.”

Sunday leftovers

In the locker room at O.co Coliseum on Oakland, players shared some immediate reactions to the loss of Mayo, one of their co-captains, and how the team responded.

Cornerback and co-captain Devin McCourty revealed that he encouraged his fellow defenders not to lose heart, to keep their energy levels high, and to fight through the adversity.

“That’s what it’s about: stepping up,” added McCourty. “Mayo couldn’t come back in the second half. Guys just stepped up. That’s always our focus. We believe in everybody on this team.

“[Mayo’s] a defensive captain on this team. He’s a big person on this team. He’s a leader. It’s always big to lose a guy like him.”

Guyton said it was just part of the job for him to step into Mayo’s role.

“My number was called, I just went out there and did my job,” he replied matter-of-factly. “You just go out there and make the calls. It’s easy as that ... like opening up a car door.”

Meanwhile, wide receiver Deion Branch joked with reporters about grabbing his first touchdown pass this season, a four-yard score in the fourth quarter that gave New England its final points of the afternoon.

“It’s something we’ve been seeing during the course of the week. I think the coaches drew up a bunch of good plays in the red area. I think he looked that I hadn’t scored in a couple of games and was like, ‘We’re going to let Deion score one,” Branch said, laughing.

“I was like, ‘I appreciate it, Coach.’ The time was great when they called it. They had a lot of guys in the box. Tom and I hooked up in practice and we did it in the game.”

For more on New England’s 31-19 win over Oakland, the team’s trip to the West Coast, and what’s in store for Week 5, please visit the PFW blog.