FOXBOROUGH — When Jerod Mayo was lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle last month, it appeared that fourth-year linebacker Dane Fletcher would see the field a lot more for the Patriots.
Before tearing an ACL in the 2012 preseason opener, Fletcher was regarded as an on-the-rise defensive player, another in a long line of unheralded, undrafted players who had found a measure of success with the Patriots through hard work and smarts.
Although he was lauded for his work ethic during his rehabilitation and later for his on-field smarts, Fletcher didn’t see much of an uptick in his defensive snaps in the weeks after Mayo’s injury.
That changed against Denver last Sunday night.
With Dont’a Hightower benched for poor performance, Fletcher played the entire second half, a total of 57 snaps (out of 90). He was credited with nine tackles by the coaching staff, and his third-quarter forced fumble on Montee Ball, which was recovered by Brandon Spikes, gave the Patriots possession at the Broncos’ 32 and led to their second touchdown.
Coach Bill Belichick said that using Fletcher more and Hightower less was “an adjustment that we needed to make.” Belichick also said Fletcher was well-prepared, as always.
“I think he stepped in there and did a good job,” said Belichick. “It certainly wasn’t perfect; there wasn’t much that was perfect defensively. But he definitely stepped in and made some plays. I thought he competed well.”
A defensive lineman at Montana State who made the switch to linebacker after signing with New England in 2010, Fletcher had childhood dreams of making it big in ice hockey (he was a goalie and defenseman) before moving back to football in high school.
He follows the Bruins and is friendly with Tyler Seguin; before Seguin was traded to Dallas, Fletcher and Seguin would hang out in Boston.
Though his play on defense was sporadic the first seven games, Fletcher has been in uniform every week, playing a good deal on special teams. He leads the Patriots with 13 special teams tackles.
But he’s glad to be getting more reps on D.
“It’s nice,” he said. “I mean, the more I can do for the team, the happier I am, and the more trust they have in me, obviously the more comfortable I get on defense.”
Though he wasn’t seeing a lot of time on defense, Fletcher was still putting in time with his playbook and in the film room, working on that intelligence Belichick has noted.
“It takes a lot, regardless of whether it’s natural or not, just studying the game,” Fletcher said. “How much of it is natural I’m not sure because I take this job very seriously and I study hard and I really try and learn about the game and about what offenses are trying to do against us and whatnot, so I’m glad it somewhat pays off when I play.”
Which is why he was ready to go against the Broncos.
“That’s every player’s job,” said Belichick. “We stress that on a weekly basis. Every player’s job is to be ready to go. It doesn’t make any difference what your role is.
“Obviously the most critical part of the game is the end of the game — not to minimize any other part, but that’s the most critical part. It could be the next-to-last play of the game, it could be the middle of the fourth quarter, it could be halftime, whenever it is, but when that time comes, we’re all counting on you.
“That’s their opportunity, and as we all know, if you take advantage of those opportunities, then usually more will come. If you don’t, fewer will come or they’ll get passed along to somebody else.
“But the whole linebacker thing obviously changed when we lost Jerod. He almost never came off the field. Now where he would normally be sometimes is handled by one player or sometimes more than one.”
Though Mayo is still around the team facility, Fletcher, 27, has tried to take more of a leadership role, helping his younger teammates as needed, something he said comes naturally to him.
As he noted, he’s “one of the older guys” now, which he finds a little funny to say, but as he heads toward the end of his fourth season and with the memories of his year on the sideline still pretty fresh, he added, “Time flies. That’s why you have to cherish every moment you’re on that field.”