True leaders often shine through at the toughest times in life.
On his traditional day-after-game conference call Friday morning following the Patriots tough 19-14 win on Thursday Night Football in Tampa Bay, New England coach Bill Belichick made it clear that a couple of his defensive captains stepped up to what was a week of adversity for the defending Super Bowl Champions.
In the midst of answering a question regarding Dont'a Hightower's role against the Bucs and usage overall this season, Belichick offered up praise not just for his Pro Bowl linebacker but also for fellow captain Devin McCourty.
"I really thought this week that, since you asked about Hightower, I thought that High and McCourty really gave us some great leadership defensively and our preparation and having the right attitude to go down and play in the game and what we needed to do," Belichick said. "It was a short week. I thought they really stepped up from a leadership standpoint in that group and did a great job for us. It's always good to see. I just wanted to recognize it because I think sometimes you just see it play out on the field. Obviously, they're very, very important but there's a lot of things that go into how it all comes together and I thought those two players defensively did a real good job for us this week."
Belichick had plenty of positive things to say about many of his individual players following the somewhat ugly win over the Buccaneers, though the coach obviously continued his season-long message that his team has a "lot of things to work on in all three phases of the game. We're working hard on all those things."
Here are some of the highlights of Belichick's Friday morning conference call, including significant praise for Danny Amendola and James White as well as a general explanation why a healthy veteran contributor like Alan Branch might be inactive and not even a part of the Patriots travel party.
1. Amendola "one of our best and most dependable players":With Rob Gronkowski inactive and watching from the bench in Tampa Bay due to a thigh injury, New England clearly turned to Amendola to be a bigger part of the offense against a Bucs team decimated with injuries at linebacker and safety. As he so often does, the veteran receiver stepped up in a big way and answered the call.
Amendola not only had a season-high eight catches, hauling in every ball that targeted him, but also had a clutch 40-yard punt return to set up a Stephen Gostkowski field goal late in the second quarter. He was on the field for 74-percent of the offensive snaps.
Despite missing the Week 2 trip to New Orleans with a concussion and being limited a bit in his reps upon return against the Texans, Amendola is tied for second on the team with 23 receptions for 267 yards. He's on pace for 74 receptions, which would be his most as a Patriot and most since he caught 85 balls for the Rams in 2010.
It always seems like Amendola steps up when healthy and called upon, which is pretty much exactly how Belichick characterized his undersized receiver's role in New England.
"I thought Danny gave us a lot of critical plays in the game," Belichick said. "He gave us punt returns, some catches and he blocked well. He had a couple of key blocks in the running game, as well, so I thought he really did a solid job for us in all the areas, in all of the things that he was asked to do, which he usually does. He's one of our best and most dependable players."
Later in the call, a follow-up question on Amendola posed the idea that the receiver has improved his catch percentage of late compared to when he first arrived in New England. Belichick again heaped praise on the receiver and threw some shade on the "numbers."
"I think Danny's been one of our most dependable players since he's been here. He catches the ball well, returns kicks, blocks well, has good run-after-the-catch and return ability. I mean, he's made those plays every year. You go back to the Buffalo game, the opener four years ago, the plays he made in that game – I don't think we would've had much chance to win without the plays that he made on the last drive in Buffalo," Belichick responded. "Whatever the numbers are, they are. I mean, I know that's a big thing, to look at all of the numbers … but I think when you look at a player like Danny you see a pretty dependable, consistent performer that gives us good plays every week, and just like any player, every player on our team, every coach, every player I've ever coached, there are always plays that could be better. I mean, every receiver has dropped a pass. Every quarterback has thrown an interception. Every defensive player has missed a tackle. Every field goal kicker has missed a kick. We've all had them. Every coach has made bad calls, so we've all had them. You're going to find them. Even the great players are going to have them, but I would say Danny doesn't have too many of those."
2. White "one of the better backs in the league" in the passing game: In a similar fashion, the passing back White also continued to produce as needed for Brady and the Patriots. Entering the game leading New England with 22 catches over four games, the Super Bowl hero hauled in seven of the nine passes thrown his way for 57 yards to help beat the Bucs.
White came up particularly clutch in the second quarter when he had receptions of 18 and 24 yards on a drive to New England's only touchdown of the night. He was notably impressive on a wheel route for the 24-yard gain, a play that had a reporter asking about White's ability to do things in the passing game that make him more like a true wide receiver than just a running back with pass-catching skills.
Belichick concurred with the point, and explained exactly why White is so productive in his role for New England.
"I think James White's receiving skills, not just catching the ball, but his savvy, and route running, and blitz pickup, and getting out and knowing when to slow down; he'll go across the defender, when to pull up, when to break out, when to break in. I mean, those are a lot of critical decisions in the passing game that receivers make," Belichick described. "Every time a pass is thrown those kinds of decisions come up for them. It's not as common for backs, but I think James does an excellent job of that. I think he's probably one of the better backs in the league at all of those things, whether it's route running, the blitz pickup release part of the game, catching the ball, hiding the catch until late so he doesn't give the defender an opportunity to put his hands in and strip the ball. He's good at all of those things."
3. Explaining Branch's absence: A year ago Belichick described the veteran defensive tackle Branch as the most consistent player at the position on the New England defense. Branch was a big part of the Patriots run defense that ranked tied for third in the NFL in 2016. As a free agent this offseason that impressive play was rewarded with a two-year contract that reportedly guarantees Branch $3 million and could be worth as much as $12 million.
But Thursday night while the Patriots were battling the Bucs and getting gashed by running back Doug Martin, Branch was back in New England as a healthy scratch who didn't even make the trip to Tampa. It continued a less-than-ideal start to 2017 for the 32-year-old veteran who missed much of the summer on PUP and has seen his playing time drop as his performance has been questionable at best.
Belichick was asked whether Branch's absence from the game day roster was related to performance and the coach's answer, though somewhat general, was also very telling.
"You take the players that you feel are best for that game that you think will have the biggest impact or give you the most depth that you feel like you need at that game," Belichick said after initially explaining that some players are inactive each week purely for health reasons. "That's what we do every week. So whatever players are inactive, you can put the same players in that same conversation. This isn't about one player. Whatever players are inactive for whatever the reasons were, a combination of reasons, we felt like the players that we activated were the ones who gave us the best chance to win the game, which is ultimately what we're trying to do."