FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Coaching or bust for Steve Belichick: When the Patriots lost three veteran defensive coaches in the offseason and plans to have Greg Schiano lead the defense were aborted after a few weeks in March, it left Steve Belichick, 32, as the defensive coach with the most experience in the team’s system. He’s in his eighth season — the first four spent as a general assistant and the past four as safeties coach.
“I think I’ve grown every year, in having more and different responsibilities every year. It’s been a lot of fun. I guess you have to ask other people for a more detailed evaluation, but I’m happy to still be here eight years later,” he said when asked about how he has grown to this point of his career. “There’s a lot of turnover in this business, which I’ve lived it my whole life, so I’m just happy to have some roots here.”
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Although the Patriots don’t have an official defensive coordinator this season — Bill Belichick leads the meeting room, according to players — Steve has played an important role on game day in the playcalling process.
When the Patriots beat the Browns on Oct. 27, analyst Tony Romo had fun on CBS’s broadcast — as sideline video was shown of the Belichicks and inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo — by trying to determine who was calling the plays. No one on the coaching staff has detailed how the Patriots are doing it, but the team is more open in noting how Steve (the second oldest of Bill Belichick’s three children) has taken on more of a general leading role.
Safety Devin McCourty, a longtime captain now in his 10th season, reflected on the evolution he’s seen from Belichick.
“It’s been cool. My third year when he first got here, we used to sit by each other in the squad meetings — as his dad would sit there — and he was the guy who had to do all the grunt work of printing up sheets, drawing out all the defenses, drawing out the cards. I remember he always looked exhausted, and I was thinking, ‘Is he wondering if this is really what he wants to do?’
“So just seeing him grow in that role, and then when he first moved to safeties coach [in 2016], in the spring, I remember him coming in and he was like, ‘I just found out a couple weeks ago I would be doing this, so we’re all going to figure this out together.’ I think one of the greatest things about Steve was how he started out that meeting: Figuring things out together. That’s how our room has been. While we have some older guys in there, Steve has always been open about having dialogue about football, about the game-plan, about everything.”
McCourty said Belichick has made him a better player.
“He’s really into overall defense and that’s helped me out a lot, like when Pat [Chung] is out and I have to play some of his roles. It’s understanding how our defense works. He’s given us tutorials on the 3-4 defense, how his dad saw what was on the Giants, with their personnel, and how our personnel matched that. Different things like that, his overall knowledge has helped me.
“And now seeing him kind of even be more involved in actually play-calling and all of that stuff has been cool to see, because he hasn’t changed his willingness to be open. Now it might be, ‘Do you like this call? How do you like this call?’ To have that relationship with one of your defensive coaches is awesome. Then when you’re on the field, you kind of turn into him. You think the same way. I think that’s how you’re able to execute at a high level, when you have coaches and players thinking the same way.”
As for Belichick, he noted how as defensive coaches have departed in recent years, it has changed what is asked of him.
“I haven’t really compared it to previous years, but it’s obviously different for me being the most tenured guy on the staff. So I’m just trying to disperse my knowledge and help everyone out that I can,” he said. “Before I was leaning on a lot of people. Now some people are leaning on me. I’m just trying to give good information. It’s a production business. Hopefully I produce enough to be here.”
His appreciation for his job stands out.
“I’ve thought about what I’d be doing if I wasn’t coaching football and there is no list. I couldn’t think of anything else I’d want to do,” he said, before flashing a smile and adding: “I’d probably be a stay-at-home dad.”
2. Behind-the-scenes change with one big defensive backs room: One change the Patriots have made this year is that cornerbacks and safeties meet less frequently as individual units and more as one group. Steve Belichick said he and cornerbacks coach Mike Pellegrino thought that made the most sense because communication is a No. 1 priority on the field and they ask defensive backs to play multiple roles. Thus, “there’s a lot of crossover coaching points from player to player.”
3. Deep thoughts on Patriots-Texans matchup: Opponents have completed just 26% of passes 15 yards or more downfield against the Patriots, which is the lowest mark in the NFL. It is a statistic that reflects how not giving up the big play has been a big part of the unit’s success. But if past prime-time games are any indication, Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson will still test New England down the field. In seven prime-time games over his career, Watson is 11 of 16 with six touchdowns on throws 30 or more yards down the field. There’s something about the bright lights that seems to bring out the big-play magic from Watson.
4. Did you know: Including the playoffs, the Patriots are 112-31 on or after Thanksgiving since 2001, which is the best winning percentage (.783) in the NFL over that span. The Steelers (87-42, .674), Packers (78-50, 609), Colts (76-49, .608) and Seahawks (77-51, .602) are next.
5. McCourty’s advocacy helps produce a touchdown for schools: Over the past couple of years, I’ve watched Patriots captain Devin McCourty devote countless hours to advocate for those less fortunate, such as using his platform to push for more funding for some of the state’s neediest schools. In March, for example, he testified at the Massachusetts State House, but the legislation he was backing fell short. Yet similar to what we see on the football field, McCourty persisted, and on Tuesday, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed new legislation that included the five key recommendations McCourty had been advocating for, pumping $1.5 billion into schools when fully phased in over the next seven years.
“Here in football, we’re always part of a team and we have goals, and we’ve reached those goals three times in my career of winning the Super Bowl. You’re not really thinking you have the kind of impact to do something like being part of the education bill,” McCourty said. “Ultimately, this was about the kids. To see that for the future is awesome.”
6. Checking in on Crossen: The Patriots acquired a sixth-round draft pick from the Texans in exchange for second-year cornerback Keion Crossen on Sept. 1, and when I asked Houston head coach Bill O’Brien what Crossen has contributed to his team, he started with the word “energy.” Crossen has played 169 snaps on special teams and 102 on defense for the Texans, so his role in Houston is similar to what it projected to be in New England — if not for a deep depth chart. “He’s a really good teammate and a hard-working guy,” O’Brien said.
7. Dawson elevates to top slot role in Denver: The Patriots’ deep, talented cornerback group led to the early-September trade of Crossen, as well as 2018 second-round pick Duke Dawson and a seventh-round pick being shipped to Denver for a sixth-rounder. The Broncos seem pleased with the swap as Dawson has been their top slot corner, playing 342 defensive snaps. That wasn’t going to happen in New England, where Jonathan Jones has become one of the NFL’s best players in that role. If there has been one criticism of Dawson in Denver, it has been his penchant for being grabby — he has been called for five penalties (pass interference twice, holding twice and illegal use of hands).
8. Faulk had sought trade in 2001 season: Running back Kevin Faulk was inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame in 2016, but it wouldn’t have happened if the Patriots had granted his wish. In the second episode of the “Pats from Past” podcast, Faulk shared the story of how Bill Belichick had called him into his office in his second season as Patriots coach in 2001, telling him he wanted to make him the team’s third-down running back. Faulk left the meeting disappointed, called his agent and asked him to find a way to get him to a new team. Even after the Patriots’ Super Bowl win against the Rams, when Faulk said he had a miscue that limited his role, his rising emotions still had him wanting to leave. Looking back with the benefit of maturity, Faulk is glad it never unfolded that way.
9. Gostkowski’s connection to Stephen F. Austin’s upset over Duke: One of the big sports stories of the week was Stephen F. Austin shocking Duke in a last-second men’s basketball road victory, which snapped the Blue Devils’ 150-game home winning streak against nonconference opponents. It was a result that Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski had some added interest in; Stephen F. Austin’s athletic director is Ryan Ivey, who served as Gostkowski’s holder at the University of Memphis.
10a. Roberts swaps jerseys with Bennett: Ever since the Patriots’ win over the Cowboys on Nov. 24, linebacker/fullback Elandon Roberts has had a new addition in his locker — the Cowboys jersey of defensive end Michael Bennett. The two grew close in their time as Patriots teammates this year. “Mike, that’s my guy. I still text Mike daily,” explained Roberts, who gave Bennett his Patriots jersey after the game. “He taught me a lot of things. I didn’t know him before — I knew [his brother] Martellus –but our relationship grew when he got here.” As for Roberts’ fullback role …
10b. Roberts’ role at FB makes an impression: Since first being tapped at fullback after James Develin and Jakob Johnson were placed on injured reserve, linebacker Elandon Roberts has seen modest snap counts — 3, 1, 0, 7 and 4. But he’s clearly showing a knack for the position in those limited opportunities. Roberts, who considers himself a linebacker first and foremost, was praised by Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels for his blocking this past week and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Patriots grow that part of his role to see if the power running game (with two backs) can once again become a part of their arsenal. “We have a lot of confidence in him and that grouping,” McDaniels said.