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Physical Jabrill Peppers is emerging as a tone-setter for the Patriots on defense and special teams

Related: 4 winners and 2 losers from the Patriots’ victory over the Jets

New England Patriots v New York Jets Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Coming off a disappointing loss on Monday Night Football, the New England Patriots were in dire need in Week 8 versus the New York Jets. They were able to get it, thanks in part due to a player who would not have been as prominently featured had not an injury struck the safety position.

With Kyle Dugger out, however, Jabrill Peppers took over as the third safety alongside Devin McCourty and Adrian Phillips. He made sure to make the most of his opportunity, showing a blend of physicality and playmaking ability that helped the set the tone for the rest of New England’s defensive and special teams units.

His first big moment came on the first play of the second quarter, when he lifted and tossed Jets wide receiver Garrett Wilson after a 23-yard completion. Peppers’ trademark physicality was on display in that particular moment, and would come up again.

The 27-year-old, after all, prides himself on being a physical player.

“I like to think I’m a physical player,” he told reporters on Monday. “I think that’s been my background for a while, but I just wanted to play within myself. To be aggressive but to play within the scheme. Just trying to make the plays that came to me.”

Plays sure were made. Peppers ended the game as New England’s leader in tackles with eight, including one for a loss. He also had a pair of highlight-reel plays in the kicking game.

The first of those came in the third quarter, after the Patriots had taken a 16-10 lead. After the defense forced a quick three-and-out, the Jets punt team operated deep in its own red zone — giving return man Marcus Jones an ability to considerably flip field position in New England’s favor.

He did just that, running the punt back 32 yards to the New York 27. Jones was able to do that in large part because of Peppers absolutely leveling Jets gunner Justin Hardee.

“It looked pretty good on tape, definitely did,” Peppers said about the play.

The block would later also draw the praise of special teams captain Matthew Slater.

“That was maybe the best block we’ve had in the return game all year on probably one of the best, if not the best, gunner in the league right now in Justin Hardee,” Slater said on Monday.

“Pep stepped up and to have that mindset to meet the challenge, it was huge. He’s been so selfless since he’s been here. He’s just doing whatever he’s been asked to do; doing it with a smile; coming out energetic; trying to stay positive. That was a huge, huge block. It really fired up the whole team, the whole sideline. Really gave us a shot of juice.”

The play and Peppers’ physical performance as a whole did not come as a surprise to Slater, though.

“Have you seen the guy? The guy looks like the Incredible Hulk,” he said. “It’s muscles on top of muscles. Physicality’s an understatement when you talk about his game. He certainly embraces it and the way he’s able to really roll his hips on contact in short area spaces, whether that’s defensively or in the kicking game, it’s super impressive. So, he brings a level of physicality that few guys his size can bring. We’re lucky to have him.”

Peppers called the praise “a good compliment coming from Slate”, but it was not the only one coming his way for his performance versus the Jets. Head coach Bill Belichick also spoke highly of the free agency acquisition and what he brought to the table on Sunday.

Unsurprisingly, his physicality was once again mentioned.

“I thought Jabrill had several big plays for us, and physical plays,” Belichick said. “Good to see that production out there, have him out there. He helped us in the kicking game and certainly helped us on defensively against the run and the pass and on the pass rush. Just good to have him on the field.”

Peppers also was on the field in the late fourth quarter, making a pivotal play to seal the game.

With the Patriots just having given up a touchdown, they were up 22-17 inside the two-minute warning. The Jets had to try an onside kick to have any theoretical chance of coming back to win, and Peppers was part of New England’s hands team; he was one of the front-line players responsible for either fielding the kick or blocking for one of his teammates to attempt to do so.

A former baseball player, Peppers cleanly caught the ball after a short hop to ice the game. Belichick came away impressed by the defenders’ ability to simply pluck the ball out of the air no problem.

“It was a really good play by Peppers,” he said. “They’re probably one of the best onside kick teams we’ve faced in quite awhile. It was really just an outstanding play by our unit. Peppers was really at the point of attack, and he came through with a big time shortstop play there. It was well designed by the Jets and I’d say well-played on our end.”

For as big a play as it was, Peppers himself appeared to file it under “business as usual” immediately following the game.

“I attacked it,” he told reporters in the locker room. “I think I got it off the first or second bounce. You can usually make good judgement calls on those. If it’s coming in too hot, you bypass it, you’re going to block somebody so the other guy can get it. But if it’s on your inside shoulder and you feel like you can get it, you just have to go get it and make the play. Cradle it, game over.”

Based on plays like the ones he made versus New York, Peppers will continue to get his chances even with Kyle Dugger returning to the lineup. His role might not be as big on the defensive side of the ball — Dugger has been one of the NFL’s best safeties this season — but it still will be a valuable one.

And one that will help set the tone for the rest of the team.