The Patriots linebackers have had their critics over the last couple years.
They are old. Or slow. Or limited.
But the way it sounded Monday afternoon, the group has one very important supporter – Bill Belichick.
During his weekly day-after-game conference call in which he broke down various aspects of Sunday evening's well-rounded win over the Vikings, the Patriots head coach had plenty of praise for his trio of linebackers that includes former Pro Bowler Dont'a Hightower, versatile veteran Kyle Van Noy and developing young middle man Elandon Roberts.
New England used a fluid, undefined front with regularity against Minnesota, limiting the ability of Kirk Cousins and the Vikings offensive line to get their protection and blocking calls effectively. Hightower played a key role in the communication for the front, while chipping in with a few key plays.
"High always does a good job," Belichick said. "He's a very, very smart player. He's a very instinctive player. He has good anticipation, good awareness, he knows what the strength and weaknesses of each defensive call is and then he can pretty quickly assess that based on the offensive formation, personnel and what happens after the ball is snapped. So, he and Kyle do a great job of that independently, sometimes together, but even without any help from anybody, they're very good at that. Anytime High is on the field, our communication, certainly at his position and with the people that he works with, is always good, whether that's in pass rush or pass coverage or formation adjustments and checks and so forth. It doesn't matter if he's on the end of the line or off the line or up in the line in pass rush situations, but his communication and experience and overall instinctiveness as a football player and in our system is extremely valuable."
Belichick was also specifically asked about Roberts' growth in coverage, a work in progress for the natural run thumper. The veteran put a big hit on Dalvin Cook following an incompletion on the first snap of the day that other defenders said may have set an early tone for the New England defense.
"Elandon's a very aggressive run player and tackler," Belichick began. "As he's gained experience, he's been able to, I'd say, process plays just a split-second quicker and recognize the differences between runs and play-actions and then having awareness of where the receivers are generally trying to get to on certain play-actions – like how the offense is trying to get the defense to react in a certain way so they can get receivers into a voided area – and he understands that. Once he recognizes that it's play-action, he is working to that area where he needs to be and he's seeing things quickly and had a couple real good plays on that. He and [Dont'a] Hightower both had a couple real good plays on that in the game yesterday. It doesn't show up in the stat sheet, doesn't look like much, but when they do that, it probably saves you 20 yards, or it could be more, but let's call it 20 yards or so on defense. So, those are really big plays for your defensive unit to be able to eliminate if a linebacker can make that play. So, that's an important play for us."
Beyond the contributions of his linebackers, here are some other takeaways from Belichick's weekly day-after-game conference call.
Jackson getting it done – Undrafted rookie cornerback J.C. Jackson played 54 defensive snaps in Sunday's win, 89-percent of New England's plays on that side of the ball. He finished with four tackles and a pass defense. He was targeted by Cousins on a pair of throws in the deep right corner of the end zone in the third quarter, narrowly avoiding pass interference calls to keep both Adam Thielen and Aldrick Robinson from hitting pay dirt. Later, Jackson deflected a pass that ended up as a Duron Harmon interception in the end zone.
Jackson has shown a feisty, physical, competitive style of play from the second he stepped on the practice field this offseason and continues to evolve as a rookie contributor.
"J.C.'s worked really hard and made a lot of improvement this year, going all the way back to the spring, and coming in as an undrafted player just has really worked his way all the way up to earning a spot on the roster and then earning play time," Belichick said. "So, he's just been very dependable and gotten better every day. It's not always perfect, but he learns from his mistakes and corrects things. So, it's taken a little time for him to gain some experience, but he's doing a good job with it and has good ball skills. He has the ability to get his hands on the ball and judge the ball and make good plays on the ball, like he did on I think it was the third down play where he kind of went up over Robinson's back to get his hands on the ball and bat it away. So, we've seen him do that a lot. He's got a good knack for timing and getting his hand on the ball."
Jackson is following a trail of undrafted or latter-round cornerbacks who were able to carve out key roles for themselves in New England.
"As a new player, as a rookie, whatever your opportunities are, you have to come in and earn that and prove it to your teammates and the team and the coaching staff and everybody else. I mean, Jon Jones did that, Logan Ryan did it, Malcolm [Butler] did it. We've had a lot of guys come in and do it at that position over the course of time and other positions, as well, so it's just really up to each individual guy," Belichick said of those players proving themselves.
I-D-entity a work in progress – The Patriots defense put forth an impressive overall performance in Sunday's win. The work included solid coverage, timely pass rush and impressive tackling. It's the second time in a month the unit has been a major complementary factor in a big home victory, the other when it shut the door on Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in early November.
After its seemingly annual slow start, the New England defense is rounding into late-season form. Still, Belichick isn't willing to declare the unit as having established its "identity." In fact all he cares about is moving forward to Sunday's challenge in Miami against the Dolphins.
"It's a week-to-week challenge in the season. And so this week, it's Miami," Belichick said. ":We haven't established anything against Miami, so we'll have to go down and do that on Sunday and we'll see what happens. Certainly, they'll be a big challenge for us. They did a great job last year of making adjustments from the first game to the second game. We had a hard time staying with them down there last year. So, yeah, I don't think really what happened yesterday or what happened in the first Miami game – really, I don't think any of that's really very important. It will all be how it all manifests itself this week, and this game will be different from those other ones. So, we'll be starting all over again. We already have. We already started to start all over again. So, hopefully we can create a good identity on Sunday in Miami. That's our goal."
"Nobody I have more respect for in football than Nick Saban": Belichick and Alabama coach Nick Saban have a long friendship that dates back decades. The latter was an assistant on the former's staff in Cleveland in the early 1990s. Since then Belichick has become arguably the greatest coach in NFL history, while Saban has established himself as arguably the greatest coach in college football history.
This past weekend, just before Belichick's team took another step toward another Super Bowl run, Saban's Tide squad had a comeback win over Georgia in the SEC title game to secure the No. 1 spot in the college football playoff as they pursue yet another national championship.
Belichick said he saw a bit of the game – and also expressed respect for Georgia coach Kirby Smart – and is well aware that the two friends are once again working to extend the winning in their modern-day football dynasties.
"Of course it's flattering to be compared with Nick and the great success that he's had there and the way his team's performed," Belichick said. "I don't think anybody has done it better than he has, so I think probably every coach in football is trying to do it as well as he does it and has done it. But, they do a tremendous job there. Nick's a tremendous coach. I've certainly learned a lot from him during the time we were together and he's been a great friend and a coach that I have tremendous respect and admiration for. Whenever we get a chance to visit, it's really a great opportunity to me to learn from somebody that I respect so much and know how much knowledge and I would say just knowledge and application, real football application, he has – what you can do, what you can't do and what looks good on the board and what actually looks good on the field. So, a tremendous win just like they had last year in the National Championship game, but they win almost every game they play anyways. So, it's really incredible what he's done there, the program that he's built, how consistent he is and the way he does it with a lot of class and great discipline, great execution and passion. Yeah, there's nobody I have more respect for in football than Nick Saban, period."