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Adrian Phillips on stepping into the Patriots’ defense: ‘Here’s your canvas and you can paint whatever you want on it’

In 2020, Adrian Phillips led New England in tackles and tackles for loss.

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NFL: SEP 27 Raiders at Patriots Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Once Adrian Phillips agreed to terms with the New England Patriots last March, he was met by a virtual program, a preseason without games and a learning curve.

But also by a new canvas.

The former Pro Bowler and first-team All-Pro on special teams with the Los Angeles Chargers painted out his place in head coach Bill Belichick’s defense from there, as Phillips likened it Wednesday on CBS Sports Radio’s “The Jim Rome Show.

“Yeah, it was tough, especially when you have a guy like Coach Belichick and have all these people around that have been around that system for so long,” Phillips told host Jim Rome. “You get used to a type of verbiage, a type of way that certain defenses play, because I’d been in that system for six years with the Chargers or whatever it may be. And I go to the Patriots and it’s something totally different. It’s like you have your canvas: ‘Here’s your canvas and you can paint whatever you want on it. We’re going to give you the tools to put you in the right position, but you basically have the freedom to do whatever you want.’”

Phillips would start all 16 games for the first time in his NFL tenure. By the finale of New England’s 7-9 season, the 2014 undrafted free agent out of Texas had led the team with 109 tackles and seven tackles for loss.

A pair of interceptions and his first career sack were recorded along the way.

“The scheme’s always changing and you have to be a smart player to be in that defense,” said Phillips. “I know that you got to be smart to play in any defense, but that defense specifically, if you aren’t studying, if you aren’t taking it serious, then you won’t succeed. It was a new challenge for me, because I pride myself on being a smart guy when it comes to Xs and Os. Like, that was a huge challenge for me. It gave me another level of understanding and another level of love for the schematics behind stuff.”

Aligning from free safety to slot corner to linebacker at 5-foot-11, 210 pounds, Phillips noted he plays defense more so than a position. But the front seven is an area of the field the 29-year-old knows speed is headed, and that the right mindset is needed.

Of his 746 snaps last campaign with New England, Phillips saw 473 snaps in the box and 163 snaps off the edges, according to Pro Football Focus.

“It’s been more and more since I stepped into the league I’ve kind of been getting closer to the line,” Phillips said. “You kind of see that with a lot of safety types around the league. Just the game is changing. The backs are getting faster. The receivers are more amazing. You just need more speed on the field and guys that can be able to cover receivers and be able to play in the box. With safeties, you kind of have the perfect package in both if you find the right guy. So, I was able to do it. I showed that I was able to do it a long time ago, and I think Coach Bill saw that. He tried me out and started to see that, so if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”