I've been the first to call for the full time demotion of Patriots linebacker Jonathan Freeny after his benching against the Giants. Veteran Jerod Mayo stepped into the line-up and really played at a much higher level, but Freeny was right back in the starting line-up the following week against the Bills.
So it's only fair to admit that Freeny is coming off his best game in a Patriots uniform and he deserves all of the credit, and then some, for his Herculean 12-tackle, 1-sack performance against the Denver Broncos.
With Jamie Collins sidelined, and then Dont'a Hightower knocked out with a knee injury, Freeny assumed the leadership role of the defense, relaying the play calls from the sideline. He was more decisive in the running game than he'd been in the past and he was more solid in coverage than before (although it's still a clear weakness).
When you factor in special teams snaps, Freeny was on the field for an incredible 106 snaps. To put that into context, wide receiver Aaron Dobson played 212 snaps all season before being placed on the injured reserve. Freeny halved that amount in just one game.
The 106 snaps for Freeny is the season high for the Patriots, narrowly edging out safety Patrick Chung's 102 snaps, also against the Broncos. Those are the only two incidents of a player breaking the century mark for the Patriots this year, while safety Devin McCourty (92, week 2 Bills; 97, week 6 Colts), guard Josh Kline (92, week 2 Bills), and Chung (92, week 6 Colts; 91, week 10 Giants) are the only other players to crack 90 in a single game.
"I think he's done a good job for us in the kicking game," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said on Tuesday. "We'd love to use him as a core player in the kicking game, but...with his increased role defensively that's something that we have to keep an eye on and just monitor and try to figure out how it's going to go.
"Last week, when Dont'a Hightower didn't play in the second half, that was kind of an in-game thing that we worked out. Those kinds of things happen during the game."
While Belichick hasn't shied away from heaping praise on Chung's rebirth this season, Freeny is a new face in the spotlight. With Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower primed to return to the field, it's possible that Freeny will fade into the background, but he's picked up undeniably top quality experience against some of the best competition in the league.
"From a conceptual standpoint as a linebacker in our system it's very important you understand where everybody lines up, sits, plays, how it affects the defense, the adjustments, the communication, all of those things that you have to handle from a linebacker standpoint," Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. "[Freeny's] done a good job of growing in that role throughout the year and really understanding from a confidence standpoint where you need to be, where your help is, how to use your leverage and things like that. He's doing a great job of trying to come in and learn and improve every day."
"We'll see how that goes going forward, but he's a guy who's done a really good job for us," Belichick said regarding his future plans for Freeny. "He has good length, good size, runs well, is tough, is a good strong run player, good tackler and has done a good job for us in the kicking game. He can blitz. He's got, like I said, good length, which is an advantage in coverage. He's got a lot of strong points.
"I'm glad we have him, glad we have him."
It wouldn't be a surprise to see the Patriots rotate their linebackers as Collins and Hightower operate on snap counts to get back into football shape or to monitor injuries. Freeny's earned another chance on the defensive side of the field and he's going to continue to improve.