The Patriots have had a good mix of youth and veterans this season on defense, an important trait if the 2020 team is to help groom the next generation of impact players. On one hand, you have long-tenured veterans like Devin McCourty, Lawrence Guy and Stephon Gilmore, on the other, you have rookies like Kyle Dugger, Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings and now Myles Bryant who are showing up in different ways each week.
"Just as a general group, I think every veteran player, anybody with a couple of years under their belt, has done a phenomenal job with the young guys," said cornerbacks Mike Pellegrino during defensive coach availability via conference call on Saturday. "Very proud of those guys, the way that they interact with them, keep them engaged and hold them to the standard that they were held to, whether it was here or somewhere else."
Veteran Adrian Phillips might be a newcomer in New England, but has immediately stepped into a significant role, leading the team in tackles and quickly becoming one of the leaders to help guide the next generation.
"[Adrian]'s been a very valuable member of the defense all season," said safeties coach Brian Belichick. "Playing in different roles on early downs, on third downs and it's been extremely valuable for us to have him out there. Very instinctive player, great communicator, great veteran leader who knows how to prepare well every week and is passing on some of that knowledge to the younger guys in the room."
The McCourty brothers are the most established of the veteran leaders, with their impact felt not only within the context of football, but off the field as well.
"I really enjoy working with [Jason]," said Mike Pellegrino. "To watch him interact with the younger guys, it's tremendous what he's willing to do for J.C., what he's going to do for Myles, Dugger and guys out of the position group as well, and not only about football but about life."
"[Devin]'s a tremendous leader on and off the football field," added Pellegrino. "His knowledge of the system, because he's been here forever, and the way he applies it within the game is second to none, as is his ability to kind of translate what the coaches are looking for to the players."
The leadership of players like Phillips and the McCourty's is having a direct impact on the secondary, where Kyle Dugger is coming off his fifth-straight start of the season and Myles Bryant came up with his first interception against the Rams.
"[Kyle and Myles] were working very hard in the spring to learn the defense," said Brian Belichick. "I think it paid off for them in training camp when they finally got on the field and into the season when we had them play different roles. If they didn't commit themselves to the work early on and truly learn the whole big picture of the defense then I don't know if that would've been possible."
With Bryant stepping to the forefront on Thursday night, coaches were quick to praise his dedication and competitiveness, which was evident from his college tape to his arrival in New England.
"The one thing you can tell when he was playing in college is man, this kid competes, you can feel it when you watched the tape," said cornerbacks coach Mike Pellegrino. "When we started meeting with him in the off-season he asked excellent questions, really studied, really worked hard at that.
"You could just tell his competitiveness that he's carried with him probably his entire life. Marry that up with his passion for football and willingness to learn and really you're just getting the results out there on the field of him showing up in multiple roles for us."
"He's embraced whatever role we've given him as a defensive back, he's moved around and played different positions," added Brian Belichick. "Instinctive player who has done well with any opportunity he's been given and that's what has led to him being in the game."
The rookie defensive backs aren't the only ones making an impact on the defense, with linebackers Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings continuing to gain more and more valuable experience with each passing week.
"Really got to get exposed to Josh during the Senior Bowl," recalled Steve Belichick. "He was a very versatile player and had a lot of things to like about him, played a lot of different positions."
"[Josh]'s definitely showing some growth," said Jerod Mayo. "Put in a lot of time and he's an explosive pass rusher, he definitely gives offensive lines fits as far as the speed and quickness. He still has a lot of room to develop, especially in early downs, but he's done a good job in the role that he's been given up until this point."
Jennings has seen more varied early-down action and has shown glimpses of the kind of inside-outside flexibility that is reminiscent of Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy.
"He's a versatile player," said Mayo of Jennings. "I guess at first glance he's big, strong, can do a bunch of different things. He's also a smart player, he understands football. He's done a good job for us so far. Obviously, a lot of room to grow, he still a rookie. Rookie's kind of came in behind the eightball. I think he's done a good job trying to put in the extra time in the classroom in the weight room and on the field. Definitely a bright future."
For a defense that had a number of departures last offseason, the 2020 rookie class's emergence has not only been welcome but vital and bodes well for the future.
Quotes of Note
Cole Popovich on Justin Herron's ability to stay at tackle:
"Really, from the moment we started evaluating [Justin] we really thought that this guy could be a tackle and there are really two things that stood out from the college tape. First of all, just his movement skills, his ability to marry defenders and number two would be he really does a good job with his hands. He gets his hands up and uses them well, he punched as well and has good timing in his punch. So those two things we just felt like not everybody has those skill traits and so this was definitely a guy that we felt like could compete at tackle and if he couldn't play tackle, move him inside. There's nothing negative about taking a guy and trying him here and seeing how it goes."
Jerod Mayo on Devin McCourty's impact off the field:
"Obviously, all of the accomplishments he's had on the field are definitely impressive but I would say first and foremost the number one thing is everything he does off the field. You can't just really focus on one thing with Dev because he has his hands in so many different things. Whether it's the qualified immunity stuff, he's doing a bunch of different things and touching a bunch of different lives using his platform to the best of his ability to get the word out there. Really every week he's holding these forums and educating the team on things that we might not sometimes know. It's so easy for us to get caught up in our bubble but Devin does a good job reminding the team there's a real struggle out there in society today."
Steve Belichick on the importance of disguise on defense:
"Honestly, I think disguise is important no matter who you're playing. Whether you're playing Tom Brady in practice last year or you could be playing a rookie quarterback or anywhere in between. I've always felt like disguise is important as long as you can play with good disguise and not mess up your responsibilities during the play, then as much disguise as you can do is beneficial."