The New England Patriots defense had a slow start into its Week 10 game against the Cleveland Browns, promptly allowing an 84-yard touchdown drive to open the game. The unit’s second series, however, looked markedly different.
After allowing just three yards on its first two plays, the unit was trying to get off the field on a 3rd-and-7 — giving the ball back to an offense that had just executed a long touchdown drive of its own. That is exactly what happened, in spectacular fashion.
Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield attempted to hit tight end David Njoku against New England’s zone coverage, but safety Kyle Dugger was having none of it.
The second-year defender undercut Njoku’s route, turned his head around in time and picked off the football. He was not stopped until 37 yards later, setting up a goal-to-go situation for the New England offense from the Cleveland 5-yard-line.
One play after the interception, Rhamondre Stevenson crossed the plane to give New England a 14-7 lead. From that point on, the floodgates opened. Within a minute of game time, momentum had shifted completely and the Patriots would eventually end up winning 45-7.
Dugger’s interception was one of the biggest plays of that blowout victory.
“When I turned my head around and saw the ball, I was like, ‘bingo,’” he said about the play after the game.
While his most prominent play on Sunday, it was far from the only time he stood out. Playing 73 percent of the Patriots’ defensive snaps and 43 percent more on special teams, he repeatedly left his mark. Dugger finished the game with eight combined tackles — six as a do-it-all safety, and two more in the kicking game.
A second-round draft pick by the Patriots last season, Dugger continues to come up big for the team in Year 2. Having appeared in all 10 of the team’s games so far and ranking fourth in playing time behind only Devin McCourty, J.C. Jackson and Matthew Judon, the 25-year-old has picked off a total of three passes so far.
His contributions extend beyond the stat sheet, however, as McCourty pointed out after the game.
“The interception was just one of the things he did well,” the team captain said.
“I thought his physicality — that play right before the half on the kickoff hitting [Anthony] Schwartz — that was devastating. Dug’s like a Swiss Army Knife. We laugh at the fact that Dug goes down there in the box, in the bubble, and takes two steps and hits a lineman and stalemates him. And me and [Adrian Phillips] will look at him like, ‘You didn’t even look like you saw the lineman coming.’ And he’s like, ‘Nah, I just hit him.’ So quiet, doesn’t think anything of it. I ask him every week how he did end up as a D-II player, because he’s a physical freak. “
Dugger’s potential already was on full display during his rookie season. While not having the benefit of a traditional preparation due to the NFL’s Covid-19 rules, he still ended up playing half of New England’s defensive snaps. While not always perfect, his late-season development was one of the few positive stories coming out of a challenging 2020 season for the Patriots.
Now in Year 2, Dugger’s second-year jump is apparent. Not only is he seeing the field more regularly — he has played 81 percent of defensive snaps so far — he also is developing into a playmaker after not getting his hands on any balls last year.
On top of it all, as McCourty pointed out, he is growing as a leader inside the locker room.
“To me, he’s getting more and more confident in what he does; playing fast, playing physical. He has gifts that not many people playing safety have,” the long-time team captain said. “But I think it’s just him opening up and blossoming more. I can see them try to challenge him to talk more and be more vocal. He’s doing those things. He’s turning into a veteran even in Year 2. It’s been a joy to watch him.”
Dugger himself, meanwhile, was his usual self after the game against Cleveland: not too high, not too low.
“We talk about complementary football all the time in the locker room and to see it work out when we get out there, it just makes you want to continue to put a foot on the gas and keep going harder,” he said. “It’s really a big momentum thing for us and it’s a really great feeling to be able to play like that.”
Dugger is seemingly getting better by the week, and so is New England’s defense as a whole. The Lenoir-Rhyne product therefore had plenty of positive things to say following the impressive outing against the Browns.
“I would never put money against this defense,” he said. I think we will continue to get better as the season continues. So I can’t really say how good or how far we can go, but I know we’re going to be good and keep improving.”
The same appears to be true for the man himself.