Russ Hochstein (71)
No, your eyes weren't deceiving you Sunday.
Despite the heavy snow, which could have seemed blinding at times, you did see offensive lineman Russ Hochsteinlined up at fullback several times in New England's 47-7 win over Arizona. Tight end as well.
After the game, QB Matt Casselreferred to his 300-pound teammate as "a beast" at fullback.
And, yes, rookie Matthew Slater– the man who didn't really have a position going into training camp – played at least one spot on offense, defense, and special teams.
Head coach Bill Belichickacknowledged Monday that he and his staff began fine-tuning their game plan to include Hochstein more toward the end of the week, when it became clear that the snow would come down hard during the game.
"We thought we'd be in some bigger personnel groupings," Belichick explained. "We ran several of those plays behind him."
Particularly in short-yardage and goal-line situations, Hochstein found himself being the lead blocker for running backs Sammy Morrisand LaMont Jordan, who scored twice on the ground. Hochstein led the way on Jordan's second TD run. He was also an eligible player on Randy Moss'76-yard touchdown catch from Cassel at the start of the third quarter.
"We've got to keep putting him out there and pounding the rock," Cassel said of Hochstein in his post-game remarks to the media. The QB followed up with this paradox.
"He looks good. I think he said he wanted to lose a few pounds and really grow into that role."
"Anytime you play in a weather game like that," offensive coordinator Josh McDanielstold reporters immediately after the game, "you want to be able to grind out yards and get bigger, which is what we did in that grouping. Russ did a great job and was very effective in his role today."
"Russ is like what we talk about with all our players," McDaniels continued. "'The more you can do, the more you can do to help us.' Russ' versatility has been important for us in the past. Certainly it showed up today by playing fullback and tight end."
Hochstein normally rotates between the guard and center positions on the o-line, but Sunday against the Cardinals, he got to be more of a focal point in those two eligible positions that McDaniels referenced.
"Again," added Belichick, "playing at the end of the line, in the backfield – places where he normally doesn't get a lot of playing time – he made those adjustments nicely."
After having watched the game film, the head coach also directed words of praise at Slater.
"He did some things well. Other things we need to talk about and correct a little bit. But, for the most part, he was in the right spot," Belichick observed.
No small feat, considering he had to line up in all three phases of the game at one point or another.
"His normal duties on special teams, his snaps at receiver, and then as a safety. He got a lot of snaps this week at safety," Belichick revealed. "Once the score got where it was, we felt we could get him in there and give him some experience playing that position. And he had a lot of practice time there, too. It was a good learning experience for him."
Slater even had a hand in one of the more memorable plays of the game: safety Brandon Meriweather's3rd quarter strip-sack of Cards backup QB Matt Leinart.
New England sent the blitz on the third-and-17 play, with both Slater and Meriweather rushing toward the line of scrimmage. Slater was picked up by the back, leaving Meriweather free to proceed to Leinart untouched.
"The way they blocked it," Belichick recalled, "the five linemen took our five linemen, and they had one back in the backfield, who took the safety on his side, which was Slater. Meriweather was free on the other side."
Belichick seemed to think that if the back had been on the other side, or if Meriweather and Slater had reversed positions, Slater might've been the one who got the sack.
By the time Pats backup quarterback Kevin O'Connellgot in the game in the fourth quarter, Slater even saw a pass thrown his way when he lined up at receiver. He was also a regular on special teams.
Preparing for so many positions can be challenging, which is why Belichick and his staff try to alert players like Hochstein and Slater as early in the week as possible that they might need to put in some extra work.
"That's fairly common, where one thing's more of an emphasis than something else," Belichick said. "And we try to identify that for the players … 'You're going to be playing more at nickel [corner], somebody else is going to be playing more in regular situations. But you've gotta be ready to do both because you're each other's depth and we don't know which formation they're going to use more of …' That kind of thing. But yeah, that's pretty common."
"Versatility is one of the things that we really stress on our team," McDaniels pointed out. "Offensively, you saw some guys play some different roles for us today. The more that those guys can help us offensively and play on the special teams is a credit to them that they are able to contribute in more than one phase of the game. That always helps us.
"At this point in the year," McDaniels concluded, "you are dealing with injuries and guys that aren't active so to have more of those guys is better for us."
The Week Ahead & Playoff Scenarios
With Christmas falling on a Thursday this year, the Patriots are altering their regular work schedule this week. Players and coaches will be here for meetings and practice on Tuesday, which is normally the players' day off, in exchange for an off day on Christmas Day. Wednesday and Friday will be normal work days.
Saturday, it's off to Buffalo for the regular season finale.
The playoff scenarios around the league are manifold and convoluted, but suffice to say, the Pats need a win against the Bills to have any shot at the postseason. They could still win the AFC East, or sneak in as a Wild Card, but they'd need Miami to lose on the road to the Jets for the former to occur and Baltimore to lose at home to struggling Jacksonville for the latter.
The Bills and Pats will meet at 1 p.m. Eastern on Sunday, as scheduled, but the NFL has changed the times for several other important games.
Both the Miami and Baltimore games will now be played at 4:15, as will the Cowboys-Eagles contest. Sunday Night Football now pits the Broncos and Chargers, the winner capturing the AFC West title and a home game on Wild Card Weekend.