FOXBOROUGH — Before the sixth play of last Sunday’s game between the Patriots and Raiders, Nate Ebner left the sideline and joined his teammates on the field. Except the Patriots weren’t punting or kicking, and weren’t receiving a punt or kick. This play didn’t require any of the special teams units.
No, Ebner was sent in to play in the Patriots’ sub package, when they wanted an extra defensive back because they were expecting the Raiders to pass. Which Oakland tried to do in this instance, but Derek Carr’s third-down attempt fell incomplete.
Ebner checked in the next time the Raiders’ offense faced a third down. And the next, and the next, and the next. He got 10 defensive snaps in all, one week after playing a career-high 14 defensive snaps against Minnesota.
Not bad for a special teams regular who played just three defensive snaps while at Ohio State. Not in a game, or even a season. Ebner was on the field for three defensive plays the entire time he spent with the Buckeyes.
Now, in his third season with the Patriots, Ebner has been called upon to assist with one of the most important jobs a defense has: Stop the other team on third down, force a punt, and get your offense the ball back.
Playing defense might not be something Ebner did much of before, but he’s doing it now, and doesn’t seem impressed or awestruck or concerned about why.
As Ebner would say, “Why not?”
“I’m never going to put limitations on myself, I never have. I don’t think I would be where I am today if I ever limited myself,” Ebner said this week, as the Patriots continued preparations for Monday night’s game at Kansas City. “I just try to attack each day, get better at what I’m working on, and the rest will take care of itself. They’ve challenged me, and I’ve tried to do as best I can with it and learn.”
Patriots fans might be familiar with Ebner’s story, but the key points bear repeating. He didn’t play football in high school. At all. His focus was rugby, and he was good enough to play on multiple United States national teams. He finally gave football a try when he enrolled at Ohio State: Initially as a walk-on, but then he earned a scholarship. Ebner’s role with the Buckeyes was almost exclusively contributing on special teams.
Despite his lack of playing experience, the Patriots selected Ebner in the sixth round of the 2012 draft, a head-scratching novelty pick to most draftniks. Only, the Patriots never viewed him that way. Here Ebner is, two-plus seasons later, a veteran of 33 regular-season and four playoff games in the NFL.
“His development has really been outstanding,” coach Bill Belichick said recently. “I would probably put him in the, not the all-time top, but maybe in the top 5 percent all time of players that I’ve coached, from where they were in college to how they grew in the NFL. Nate had almost no defensive experience at Ohio State. He’s adapted in a relatively short amount of time to the knowledge of our defense, to the understanding of opponents’ offenses, to instinctiveness and reading and recognition at a position that he plays right in the middle of the field, which is among the most difficult — inside linebacker and safety, where the volume and the number of things that can happen are the greatest.”
Ebner is listed on the unofficial depth chart as a third-string safety, and at 6 feet, 210 pounds would be considered way too small to play linebacker in the NFL. But against the Raiders, Ebner had his share of snaps lined up where a linebacker would typically play.
The Patriots used Ebner in a variety of ways: He was on the line of scrimmage during the Raiders’ second series, and was picked up by an offensive lineman on a blitz. He also frequently covered tight end Mychal Rivera, who finished with two catches for 11 yards. Ebner brought down Rivera after a 3-yard gain early in the second quarter; since the Raiders needed 10 yards to pick up a first down, Ebner’s tackle — one of two he was credited with in the game — guaranteed that a fourth-down punt was coming from the Raiders.
This transformation, from a special teams fringe player to a third-down sub addition, hasn’t been easy, or overnight. Ebner is quick to credit the reasons it’s been possible: a willingness to learn, a coaching staff willing to teach, and teammates willing to help.
“I spend a lot of time with [safeties] coach [Brian] Flores. I have to say that I’ve learned quite a bit from the veteran guys as well, we’ve had great leadership the years I’ve been here,” Ebner said. “They’ve been in the league for a while, and they know more about the details, every aspect of playing safety, so I just try to take as much as I can from them.
“From a size and speed and strength standpoint, I’ve always been there, but the game is so much more than that. It’s definitely a challenge to get a feel for the different ways the game can be played and recognize things, trying to pick those things up and learn, starting to recognize things quicker, then doing them better.”
Learning a new position is easier for some than for others. Ebner was named an all-academic selection by the Big Ten while at Ohio State.
“He’s a smart guy, he really picks things up,” said Devin McCourty, who made the switch from cornerback to safety after joining the Patriots. “The crazy thing with Nate is he understood a lot of what we were talking about from the very beginning. I remember his first training camp he was always around the ball. He ended up with four or five interceptions in like two weeks.
“He also didn’t know everything, and I think his hard work allows him now, he really understands the defense a lot more, and I think that’s a credit to how much work he’s put in.”
According to team statistics, the two tackles Ebner had on Sunday are the only two defensive tackles in his NFL career. He does have 33 special teams tackles — including a team-high five this season — and might best be known for the two fumble recoveries he had on special teams last year. The first, in overtime against the Broncos, led to a winning field goal.
“Nate has, I’d say, far exceeded our expectations defensively based on what he had coming out of college,” Belichick said. “Nate has worked very hard and the play time that he’s earned defensively has come through his hard work and performance and consistency. It’s really been good.”
So, how good of a defensive player can Ebner become? Tsk-tsk. You’re forgetting that he doesn’t place limitations on himself.
“Only time will tell. You work so hard every day, of course you want to find out what you can be,” Ebner said. “That’s with anything in life, not just football.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.