FOXBOROUGH — The way Bill Belichick sees it, this season is why the Patriots pay 53 people.
“If we ever happen to lose somebody, somebody else has to step in and play,” their coach says. “That’s why we have a full team.”
This is a franchise that has won three Super Bowls by adhering to the Next Man Up philosophy. One goes down, his replacement steps up.
“It’s not who we don’t have, but it’s who we have,” says defensive end Chandler Jones, whose battered unit has fielded the same starting lineup only twice.
The list of people that New England hasn’t had this season is daunting. Vince Wilfork, its best defensive lineman, is down for the year with a torn Achilles’ tendon. Jerod Mayo, its top linebacker, is hors de combat with a torn pectoral muscle. Tommy Kelly, Wilfork’s bookend at tackle, is out for the duration with a knee injury. Aqib Talib, its ace cornerback, has missed the last three games with a hip problem. Offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer broke his leg and is finished for the year. Running back Shane Vereen hasn’t played since breaking a wrist bone in the opener.
While the Patriots’ casualty list has been uncommonly long, it’s the inevitable byproduct of a violent game played by oversized men in plastic hats who have at each other with full vigor in what becomes an orthopedic buffet.
“It’s great to have everybody available,” says Belichick, who has eight players on injured reserve. “It’s great to have all your players and be at full strength. The reality of it is that’s usually not the case. Every team in the league goes through the same thing somewhere along the line.”
Yet the Patriots still have managed to go 7-2, their best record at this point since 2010, and have a two-game lead over the Jets in the AFC East going into next Monday night’s game at Carolina.
“They’re missing a lot of their main guys over there but they find ways to get it done, and that’s what’s key,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger observed before his mates were pounded into scrap metal by New England by a 55-31 count. “You find ways to win football games even when you’re missing some of your best players.”
The only way to do that is to make sure the Next Man Up is as well-prepared as the man he’s replacing, which is something the Patriots emphasize from the first day of camp.
“We pride ourselves around here on everybody understanding what we’re trying to do collectively,” says safety Steve Gregory, who himself went down with a broken thumb in the Pittsburgh game. “The next guy’s got to step in and there’s got to be no slack, nothing like that to bring us backwards.”
When Gregory went out, rookie Duron Harmon stepped in. When defensive end Rob Ninkovich departed with a foot injury, Andre Carter took over.
“Whoever is in there has to go out there and do their job to the best of their ability no matter what the circumstances are,” says defensive coordinator Matt Patricia.
They don’t go in cold
The opportunity and obligation are instantaneous. Tom Brady, the franchise’s ultimate Next Man Up, got the quarterback’s job in a flash in 2001 after Drew Bledsoe sheared a blood vessel in his chest in the second game. Brady went on to direct the club to its first Super Bowl triumph.
When Wilfork, a likely future Hall of Famer, went out in the first quarter of the Atlanta game, Chris Jones, a rookie who was the 38th defensive lineman chosen in the draft and who was cut by the Texans and Buccaneers within 11 days, was plugged in and expected to produce.
“I had no choice,” he says. “You’re expected to come in and make plays even if you may not be ready. You’ve got to step it up.”
Not that the replacements are thrown in cold. The mixing and matching that occurs in games is replicated routinely in practice.
“I don’t think you want to get into the game and start, ‘Well, what are we going to do now?’ ” says Belichick. “You go through that during the week and you talk to each player about their responsibilities, what you have for the game, who’s backing up who, who’s in what personnel grouping and so forth, and you practice it that way.
“There are plays in practice where the right corner is out, the left corner is out, the left safety is out, the right safety is out, the middle linebacker is out. We take those guys out and somebody else either moves or we substitute for them or whatever we do.”
For Next Man Up to work, especially when it’s in multiple, everyone has to be on the same page.
“Communication is really huge on defense,” says Ninkovich. “You’ve got to be able to talk to one another and understand when things are changing so that everyone knows that their specific role has changed with the play that’s being changed.
“That just comes with repetition, so guys that are out there are communicating, talking to one another, and letting each other know exactly what we’re in when the ball’s snapped.”
That has been particularly crucial in the secondary, where crossed signals can mean 6 points and where Talib’s absence has required both flexibility and versatility from the cornerbacks and safeties.
“We’ve had them in a lot of different situations,” says Belichick. “They’ve all played inside, they’ve all played outside, they’ve flipped sides. At times they’ve been on tight ends or guys like [Miami tight end Charles] Clay or those kind of receivers, whatever you want to call them — backs, tight ends, mismatch-type guys.
“Each week has been a different challenge for them but each week they’ve met the challenge well, been ready to go.”
‘It’s hard . . . but it’s reality’
For an offense in which communication between Brady and his targets is of the essence, this season has been a particular challenge after last year’s top five receivers (Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and Danny Woodhead) were released, injured, incarcerated, or decamped elsewhere.
The “Tightanic Twosome” that was Hernandez and Gronkowski vanished when Hernandez was charged with murder in August and Gronkowski missed the first half-dozen games in the extended aftermath of forearm and back surgery. Danny Amendola, brought in to replace Welker, missed four of the first eight games. And rookie receivers Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins, and Josh Boyce were going through an accelerated apprenticeship that early on was marked by flawed routes and dropped balls.
With Gronkowski back in broad-shouldered, big-mitted form, Amendola healthy again, and Dobson up to speed, the Patriots hung a record number of points on Pittsburgh with that trio combining for 18 catches, 395 yards, and 4 touchdowns.
“When Gronk plays like that and can produce like that and Danny does that and Aaron does that and the backs do that and the line blocks, it’s a good way to play football,” says Brady, who had decidedly his best outing of the year.
But if all of them had been in street clothes, the Patriots wouldn’t have chucked their offensive schemes into the dustbin.
“I don’t think you can really do that,” says Belichick. “You have to try to get the new players up to speed the best you can. You may have to condense a little bit of what you’re doing or change it a little bit or whatever. I don’t think we want to go in here and try to put in a new playbook because a couple people got injured.
“It’s hard. You don’t want to lose anybody, but it’s reality. It’s not the first time anybody has gotten hurt.”
Unless the NFL goes to flag football, it won’t be the last. What has kept the Patriots in contention is that their understudies haven’t succumbed to stage fright and, except for defensive tackles, they haven’t lost two of a kind.
“Fortunately we haven’t been in the situation this year where we’re having to take offensive guys and put them on defense and stuff like that, which at times we’ve had to do in the past,” muses Belichick.
If they do, they can always call Troy Brown, who made a career out of playing both sides of the ball. Nothing in the rule book says the Next Man Up can’t come out of retirement.