FOXBOROUGH — Darius Fleming was sitting solo along linebacker lane in the Patriots' locker room Sunday when a friendly face approached.
"Mr. Kraft!'' a beaming Fleming said excitedly.
Robert Kraft then gave Fleming a couple of friendly smacks on the chest and passed along his kudos for the job the fourth-year veteran did in Saturday's 27-20 win over the Chiefs in an AFC divisional-round playoff game.
Fleming was one of a few Patriots linebackers called upon to provide some unfriendly smacks to the Chiefs when starters Jamie Collins and Jerod Mayo were forced out by injuries. Additionally, Dont'a Hightower, who has been battling a balky knee, was forced to the sideline a few times — but did finish the game.
Fleming and Dekoda Watson, who normally make their bones on special teams, were part of the late-game rotation that helped fortify a defense that was on the field for a season-high 89 snaps.
The return of Jonathan Freeny, who missed the previous three games with a dislocated right thumb and wrist, provided a big boost, too.
"Yeah, our depth there at linebacker really came through for us, and like we talked about after the game, it's one of those situations where everybody's got to be ready to go,'' said coach Bill Belichick. "You never know how it's going to go in the playoffs.''
Fleming said it's a point of emphasis with the Patriots to be ready at a moment's notice.
"I just go in every week and prepare to play,'' said the Notre Dame product. "Obviously, I know my role on the team, but the coaches do a great job of getting guys ready just in case your name's called. So I was glad that I was able to step in there and help the team out in a positive way. You know, it wasn't perfect, but I just kind of do my job. That's my mind-set every week: Act as if I'm going to play and be ready.''
Fleming said that it's not always easy to be on the sideline, but that it's imperative to keep your head in the game whether you play every snap or just a handful.
"It's tough. You're following the game. You're watching and you're hoping that your guys can get the job done. You see things, so when you do get your opportunity to go out there you remember [what you saw] — so it's not like a shock to you, what the plays are.''
Awaiting his chance is nothing new to Fleming, who has bounced between New England's practice squad and active roster the last two seasons.
He said the attitude on the practice squad is the same as when you're a reserve on the 53-man: Stay ready, because when your chance comes you better be ready.
"You're out there at practice every day," said Fleming when asked about his time on the practice squad. "You get the same reps. You get the game plan. You know exactly what's going in each week. You're prepared, but when you're on the practice squad you're just not playing, so once you bump up there's no gap. You don't have to catch up. You're already caught up. You're ready to go.''
Fleming (10 snaps), Watson (13), and Freeny (35) were ready when Collins, the team's leading tackler, went down with a back injury — he was spotted briefly in the locker room Sunday moving without any noticeable problems — and Mayo was forced out with a shoulder problem.
"Dekoda gave us some good rushes there on the edge. Darius and Jonathan both stepped in. Of course, Jonathan has played a lot of football for us this year, and Darius has played multiple spots, from defensive end to outside linebacker to the inside linebacker spots. All those extra sessions, things that he does after practice and things like that, really paid off,'' said Belichick.
Though he may be a bit buried on the depth chart, Fleming sees it as a positive as he takes a little bit from everyone's game and knows he has the resources to lean on to sharpen his game.
"Definitely makes your job easier when you play with those guys — Freeny, High, Jamie, May,'' said Fleming. "It allows you to play with more confidence. You may not remember something, [so] you can always ask them and they're always there for you.''
Belichick has been impressed with the way Fleming goes about his business.
"Darius is a hard-working guy that doesn't say a lot, but he's always trying to do extra to get better so it's good to see him, not surprisingly, but good to see him take advantage of the opportunity,'' said the coach. "He kind of did that for us a little bit last year in the kicking game when he was on the practice squad most of the year and then came in and played well for us in a lot of big games down the stretch.''
Fleming — and Belichick — would be pleased if this season plays out the same way.