FOXBOROUGH — The head shaking started during the summer.
One by one in camp practice after camp practice, Patriots tight ends would express their frustrations, frequently flummoxed by the coverage of a player significantly smaller in stature.
Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Devin Asiasi, and Matt LaCosse all fell victim to the menacing presence of Adrian Phillips.
A hybrid linebacker/safety, Phillips routinely erased the tight ends, using his quick feet and mirror skills to compensate for the size gap.
Phillips has made it a habit of tackling bigger tasks and bigger players throughout his career. Last season, when New England’s linebacking corps was thinned by free agent departures, opt-outs, and injuries, the 5-foot-11-inch, 210-pound Phillips literally helped fill the gaps in the defense.
Dont’a Hightower paid Phillips about the highest compliment.
“Whenever I think of a football player, AP is one of the first guys who really sticks out,” the Patriots captain said Thursday.
Hightower, who took note of Phillips’s play during the linebacker’s opt-out season, explained why Phillips might be in a class by himself.
“He’s a safety that can play linebacker and line up on the line of scrimmage,” Hightower said. “You see a lot of those hard-hitting safeties and stuff, but a lot of those hard-hitting safeties, they’re playing on the back end, but AP’s in the box. He’s in there with 330-pound guys, you know bench pressing and stuff. You can’t do anything but respect that. That’s what won me over.”
Following a six-year run with the Chargers, with whom he gained a reputation as one of the league’s top special teams players, Phillips signed with the Patriots, who had much bigger plans in store.
Phillips started all 16 games — he had never started more than seven — and established a career high with 107 tackles, including 74 solos, to go along with a pair of interceptions and his first career sack.
Phillips smiled and said, “a lot” when asked how much his game has grown since landing on the East Coast.
“I never want to get complacent. I’m always trying to find stuff to get better at, find stuff to learn because there’s so much stuff out there,” said Phillips. “Coach [Bill Belichick] says it all the time, he’s been in the game 40-something years and you would think that’s a guy that has seen everything in the book, but he’s continually learning, continually trying to figure out how to better himself, and I’m the same way.”
Phillips expounded on the breadth of knowledge he’s gained in his new system.
“Being at the Chargers for six years, I thought I had a pretty good handle on the league and how I attack stuff and how I broke down film and things like that, but then I came here with Coach and being in this system, seeing how it’s just something totally different like, ‘Dang, there was a lot that I didn’t know,’ “ he said. “It’s been fun to learn it and it’s been a challenge to learn it. I’ve accepted that challenge and used it to, like, help me grow a whole lot more. So, I would say that I’m a way better player than I was two years ago just from being in this system and learning something new.”
Phillips gave an example of how he’s been able to refine and improve his game with his New England film studies.
“The main thing that I’ve become more in tuned with is the line and their passing protections vs. run protections,” he said. “Like, if they combo [block] up to a certain ‘backer or if it’s a slide protection with the running back in the pass game. That was stuff that I kind of knew, but coming here and understanding our defense and understanding how they would block certain fronts just took my game to another level and allowed me to play a whole lot faster. Because when you understand how they’re blocking you, you can beat them to the ball. They’re at a disadvantage.”
Just the way tight ends are when they run into Phillips.
Ins and outs of practice
Linebacker Kyle Van Noy (throat) and right tackle Trent Brown (calf) missed their second straight practice. The bigger surprise was that a couple of other players showed up as limited on the practice report, including Smith (hip) and kicker Quinn Nordin (abdomen). Linebacker Ronnie Perkins (shoulder) and offensive tackle Yodny Cajuste (hamstring) also were limited. Receiver Nelson Agholor (ankle), defensive back Jalen Mills (ankle), and safety Kyle Dugger (wrist) were full participants … Matthew Slater on All-Pro punter Jake Bailey: “I am a little biased, but I believe he is the finest our business has to offer.” A blushing Bailey was standing within earshot waiting for his turn with the media … After four fumbles in the opener, there has been an emphasis on ball-security drills this week. “We’ve always done it, but obviously there’s even more of a sense of urgency after the first game. That’s what all defensive coaches are going to be preaching now, that they can get the ball off of us,” said James White.