The New England Patriots entered their season opener against the Miami Dolphins with just three off-the-ball linebackers on their active game day roster: Ja’Whaun Bentley, Anfernee Jennings and Brandon Copeland. While Bentley saw considerable action by playing 51 of a possible 62 defensive snaps, the other two were used comparatively sparingly and were on the field for just nine and eight snaps, respectively.
And yet, the Patriots’ defense was able to hold up well against the Dolphins — both in the backend and the front-seven. One reason for that was how the team filled the versatile “star” position that was successfully played by Patrick Chung over the last six seasons. Chung was one of the premier safety/linebacker hybrids in the league since returning to New England in 2014, but with him opting out of the 2020 campaign the team was forced to look elsewhere to bolster its depth up front.
Enter Adrian Phillips.
While the free agency addition was not the only player to help fill the void created by Chung’s opt-out — former second-round pick Joejuan Williams played 27 snaps in tight end coverage and allowed just one reception, for example — he saw the most action of the Patriots’ strong safety group: Phillips played 43 snaps, the majority of them coming from a box alignment as the de facto number two linebacker next to Bentley.
“He’s a smart player, he’s tough, he’s physical, he runs well and he tackles well and plays really within the defense, plays a smart game,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said during a media conference call on Tuesday. “He’s working well with our other linemen, linebackers and specifically defensive backs, which is where he works the most. But, when he’s around the line of scrimmage, he has to have a good feel for what those other guys are doing, too.
“He’s shown the ability to play near the line and not near the line, so it just kind of depends on what they’re in and what we’re trying to do.”
Phillips’ debut as a Patriot was a successful one not just because he saw regular action. He also finished the contest with a team-leading nine tackles while adding a quarterback hit as well as an interception. All in all, the 28-year-old and his coaching staff have a lot to feel good about when it comes to the versatile role he has been pegged to play.
“Adrian’s a very experienced player and when we signed him, we talked about that and our defense,” said Belichick. “Because we have to defend so many different things from a week-to-week basis, teams are using more and more formations and personnel groupings and motions and just deceptive things for the defense, even though a lot of their plays are the same, they look a lot different. They might run the same play four or five times in a game, but it looks different every time, or they might switch personnel groups and things like that.
“I think that’s an advantage to have some versatility defensively and also defensive players that are instinctive and can recognize the play and not get distracted by all the other things going around it are guys that can really be productive and have plays that they just anticipate and are there to make a play on. Adrian’s showed the ability to do that with the Chargers and he’s certainly done some of that for us and had a couple really good plays — obviously, the interception, but he was in on some other plays on Sunday against Miami.”
When Phillips joined the Patriots in free agency, the original expectation was that he would compete for the third safety spot that was opened up when New England decided to trade Duron Harmon to the Detroit Lions. With Chung now also no longer available, however, the former Charger is in a prime position to carve out a prominent role within New England’s defense — something he very much did on Sunday.
His versatile skillset certainly put the veteran in that position: Phillips may be built like a safety, but he very much is capable of carrying out linebacker assignments as well. The Patriots’ inside linebackers coach, Jerod Mayo, acknowledged that during his own media conference call on Tuesday.
“Adrian is a linebacker at heart,” Mayo said. “He just stopped growing a little early, a little sooner than the rest of us.”
Mayo’s description of Phillips is very much in line with how Belichick views him as well.
“We just felt like with his versatility and ability to help us both on defense and on special teams, but not do everything all at once, he could plug into wherever you needed him, that he really had a lot of value and versatility for our team,” he said. “Then without Pat, this has really become a bigger role and a bigger opportunity to do those things, and he’s taken advantage of that and he’s embraced them.
“We’ll see where it goes, but I’m glad we have him. He’s a guy that really gives us a lot of experience and a lot of versatility on defense from a player who hasn’t been with us, but he’s been able to provide that in the weeks that he’s been here and that’s been a big plus.”