FOXBOROUGH — For someone who has played no offensive snaps this season and just five snaps on defense, Nate Ebner has managed to make his presence felt. That might seem difficult, but getting your hands on the football during two memorable moments from the regular season is a sure way to get noticed.
Ebner has come up with two fumble recoveries. The first led to an improbable overtime win, while the second capped a blooper-reel play that will live in Internet GIF infamy.
A soft-spoken second-year player who didn’t play football in high school, walked on at Ohio State, and made his name nationally in rugby, Ebner has capitalized on his limited opportunities with the Patriots. The impact has come on special teams, which is where Ebner has spent most of his time since being picked in the sixth round of the 2012 NFL draft.
“I would say it’s being in the right place at the right time, and just taking on whatever role that they put me in,” Ebner said this week after a Patriots practice. “If that means I’m around the ball, then that’s what it is.”
Fortunately for his teammates and Patriots fans, Ebner was around the ball when it bounced off Denver’s Tony Carter late in overtime Nov. 24. With barely three minutes left to play and punting the ball away, the Patriots seemed to be long shots to win, barring something unexpected — which is exactly what happened.
Ebner, despite being the personal protector for punter Ryan Allen, slipped a block and used his speed to be one of the first Patriots downfield. When the ball glanced off Carter’s leg at the 15-yard line, Ebner was there to pounce on it. Three plays later, the Patriots had earned a 34-31 win, after trailing at halftime, 24-0.
Three weeks later in Miami, with the Dolphins setting up to attempt a tying field goal in the second quarter, Ebner lined up second from the end, ready to rush. But when Dolphins holder Brandon Fields looked back at kicker Caleb Sturgis, the ball was prematurely snapped, hitting the unsuspecting Fields squarely in the helmet. The ball bounced right toward Ebner, who pounced yet again. The Patriots eventually turned Miami’s blooper into a touchdown.
In addition to the two fumble recoveries — the first of his NFL career — Ebner also made 11 special teams tackles. (Also a safety, he played three snaps at Carolina, and two snaps at Houston.) His instinctiveness, both from the recoveries and tackles, is evident.
“I think Nate has shown that from all the opportunities that he’s had with us,” coach Bill Belichick said. “I think his ability to understand schemes, to understand situations, his instinctiveness in terms of finding the ball, slipping blocks, timing of his blocks on the return game, recognition of different coverage or return patterns from our opponents . . . all those things he does at a high level. For a player who hasn’t had a lot of football playing experience, he does them very well. I think he definitely has a natural feel for it.”
It might look natural, but Ebner said he feels much more comfortable now that he’s no longer a rookie. He put up solid numbers last season (17 special teams tackles), but spent much of the time simply making sure he was on time.
“I’ve learned so much from last year to this year. Your rookie year, there’s so much to learn, it’s getting acclimated, it’s a grind, it’s nothing you’ve ever been through before,” Ebner said. “Just understanding what the season has to offer, understanding the grind, understanding how we do things here, that’s definitely been easier for me.
“I want to be on time, I don’t want to miss anything. That was a little stressful last year, so that’s taken some stress off me, just understanding how we do things around here, and just knowing what the season brings.”
This season, like last, has brought the Patriots into the playoffs. They have no game this weekend, courtesy of their first-round bye, and will host a division-round game on Jan. 11 against either the Bengals, Colts, or Chiefs.
That gives Ebner at least one more chance to make some noise. Which is exactly what he’s been asked to do.
“I’m taking on a little bit more of a role, I would say, with communication and stuff, but like I said, wherever they put me, I’m going to go out there and do the best I can at that spot,” Ebner said. “The chance is always there. Every play of the game there’s a chance for there to be a fumble. It’s an aspect of the game that we practice and it’s an aspect of the game you have to be prepared for when you step on the field.”