A year after departing New England for a lucrative free-agent deal in Miami, few fans were expecting to ever see Kyle Van Noy back in a Patriots uniform, but 13 games into the 2021 season and it seems like the linebacker never left.
Van Noy first joined the team via trade in 2016 and was a slam dunk fit for the Patriots defensive scheme. After spending the first 30 games of his career with the Lions he had recorded just a single sack and a single pass break up, but in New England Van Noy blossomed, winning two Super Bowls with the Pats in three trips to the big game and posting 16.5 sacks in his first three-and-a-half years with the team.
Van Noy relayed how determined he was to process the Patriot playbook upon his arrival, as a way to earn the trust of teammate Dont'a Hightower, who was a bit weary of Van Noy at first as it came so close to close friend Jamie Collins' departure. Now, all three are united and know the playbook inside and out.
"I was here from 6 AM to 10 o'clock at night for a month straight, didn't see my wife," said Van Noy of how he jumped into things in 2016. "I learned the defense in a month. At that point, I think they gave me the green dot a couple times."
Now back in New England, Van Noy is putting all his experience together and playing at perhaps his highest level yet, standing out with an already career-high 10 passes defended, as the vet is using his smarts to make impact plays.
"I feel like I've always had a knack for the ball," said Van Noy. "It's something I pride myself on, being a disruptive player... As you get older your athleticism might go down a little bit but you can make up for it by knowing where to go and what the other team is doing."
"Kyle's our Swiss Army Knife," said Jerod Mayo earlier this week. "You never know where he's going to line up... on the end of the line, off the ball, he's good in coverage, he can rush the passer. His awareness as well. We've been fortunate to have some linebackers that have got awareness and some of those pass breakups, that comes through film study obviously but also just hearing what the quarterback is saying. He does a good job putting those pieces together knowing what to expect and his anticipation is very good.."
Van Noy's versatility always was a big plus for the Patriots defense, following the steps of Hightower and Collins as second-level defenders who can play all over the place. His return has helped spark the Pats D to one of their best seasons statistically, with the team sitting atop the AFC at 9-4.
In a pass-happy league, a linebacker who can play well in coverage is extremely valuable.
"Kyle's a very good pass defender," said head coach Bill Belichick on Thursday. "He's had a lot of coverage experience, which is, I would say rare for an outside linebacker both in college and for the early part of his pro career. So he has a very good understanding of what's going on behind him in the passing game, combination routes and how to leverage receivers and combine that with reading the quarterback and man coverage and working in combos and man coverage and things like that."
Belichick also echoed Mayo's sentiment as far as Van Noy's instincts, while acknowledging how lucky the defense is to have three versatile linebackers.
"He's very instinctive in the passing game," said Belichick. "He's an excellent run player, has played on the line and off the line for us, which that in itself is hard to do, but his athleticism in space relative to some other outside linebackers is good, very good and his instinctiveness is good, his awareness, ability to change coverages based on motion and things like that. He's not a defensive back, but it's certainly on the high end of the linebackers being close to defensive backs in terms of their awareness, their ability to adjust and recognize things in pass coverage.
"Jamie [Collins]'s got some of those same skills too, so does High [Dont'a Hightower]. So we're really fortunate to have multiple players who can do those things and go in and out of different looks, fronts and coverage responsibilities and they all work well together."
"Now I have guys that I've played with five years on the team," said Van Noy. "We're just trying to make that grow as fast as possible to where, as a unit, all 11, we don't even have to say a word. We know where everybody's going to be at the exact moment and that's when you're playing good football and right now we're playing good football. We just gotta keep doing that consistently but it's really fun when you don't have to say anything and you can look at the person next to you and know exactly what's coming and he's going to be there to do his job."
5 Points of Emphasis vs. Colts
- Ball security: One of the biggest factors of the Patriots' last nine games, in which they're 8-1, has been the improvement in ball security. Some of the early fumbles and interceptions played a major role in the slow start to the season. But since beating the Texans the defense has forced multiple takeaways in six of their last nine games, while the offense five giveaways in their last seven games. Against the Colts the Patriots can't count on winning the turnover battle as Indy leads the league in turnover differential (+13) and are especially deft at forcing fumbles. Coming off the bye week, one thing New England cannot afford is a regression to their early-season poor ball security. Indy will make them pay if they do.
- Fast start: The Colts are one of the better teams in the first quarter this season and in a game against two closely-matched teams, whichever squad takes early control of the game should have a solid advantage. The first score of the game will be significant, as both teams will look to force their opponent to lean into their passing games. The Patriots have had a handful of close games this season and even in some of the losses, they flashed some late-game comeback ability. If the Pats do get behind, proving they can stop the best back in the league, get off the field then have their offense put together a clutch, game-winning-type drive, could be a positive development.
- Contain Taylor/Hines: It seems like a tall order to expect the Patriots to totally shut down Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines, they're a dynamic duo that complements each other well and are just as dangerous catching the ball out of the backfield as they are running it. The Pats defense has rotated heavily between their three-safety and three-corner defensive packages and in Indy they'll have a decision to make how they want to match up. The key matchup could be how well the sub front can contain the Colts ground-and-pound with just six defenders in the box. If the Pats are forced to use their 3-4 it would be more effective against the run but could create issues if the Colts look to throw to their backs. Taylor and Hines are going to get their yards, the Patriots defense just has to make sure there are no big scoring plays on the ground.
- Stops and Finishes in the Red zone: The disparity in the Patriots' red zone performance this season is a bit jarring. They're second in the league on defense, allowing touchdowns on just 45.7 percent of trips inside the 20. Meanwhile, the offense is converting just 54.3 percent of their trips inside the 20, ranking 26th. For context, the 49ers offense tops the league with 73 percent. The Colts are more middling overall, ranking 21st on offense and 29th on defense. The stats may favor the Patriots, but they won't mean much if the offense doesn't get things restarted since going five-for-six in the red zone against the Browns. In three games since they've gone a league-worst 33.3 percent in the red zone. The offense must find their finish if the Patriots are to be a true contender.
- Win: As always, this is all that matters and with just four games to go and their fate resting entirely in their own hands, checking off another AFC win over a contending team would rank up there with the best wins of the season. But this game will be an excellent challenge against a team that mirrors much of the Patriots' own characteristics and play style. With their third primetime away game in the last four weeks, it will be more excellent preparation for any potential road playoff trips. But again, if they win out, homefield is theirs and then who cares about road games anymore...
The Patriots wrapped up their week of practice preparation on Thursday as they welcomed back Chase Winovich and Yodny Cajuste after they missed Wednesday's session due to illness. However, Yasir Durant and J.J. Taylor were again absent, with Durant joining Taylor on the Reserve/COVID-19 list yesterday. Ronnie Perkins was also absent, another Patriot fighting a non-COVID illness.