MINNEAPOLIS — Kyle Van Noy got right to the point.
“It’s hard as hell,’’ the linebacker said when asked what it’s like to play for the Patriots. “Some people don’t like working hard. That’s just being brutally honest. You either like it or you don’t. If you like winning, then you’ll like it here.’’
Winning is pretty much all Van Noy has done since he arrived in New England midway through the 2016 season.
A pass-rushing demon at Brigham Young, where he piled up 25 career sacks, he was drafted 40th overall by the Lions in 2014. Things got off to a slow start in Motown when he suffered a hernia that wiped out the first half of his rookie campaign.
Though he saw action in 15 games (with zero starts) his second year, Van Noy had minimal impact with just 10 tackles.
He appeared poised for a breakout season in 2016, starting the first seven games when he was shipped to Foxborough.
“Yeah, that was frustrating, but I don’t even care about that anymore,’’ Van Noy said when asked to reflect on his time in Detroit. “I’m a Patriot at heart. I just got here in a different way.’’
Van Noy adjusted to his new environment quickly.
“I don’t want to say fallen in line — but he’s done everything we asked, works hard, puts the team first — kind of all those talking points you hear from the Patriots,’’ linebackers coach Brian Flores said. “He really embodies those things.’’
Van Noy thrived in his role as a part-time contributor in sub packages over the second half of last season and was particularly stout in the postseason — his signature moment coming when he combined with Trey Flowers to sack Matt Ryan in Super Bowl LI.
This season Van Noy’s role has steadily grown. He was a starter right out of camp at outside linebacker opposite Dont’a Hightower with Elandon Roberts in the middle.
It was a rough first month for the defense, which had undergone significant changes in personnel.
Rob Ninkovich, the heart of the Patriots defense, retired. Veterans Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard were playing elsewhere.
“A lot of people forget there was a lot of new guys and it takes a while to adjust to different roles,” Van Noy said on Tuesday. “Guys’ roles increased. Other guys were just building. So we were just developing chemistry and it didn’t happen right away. And I know it’s hard for some people to realize that it’s not perfect. We try our best and we’ve done a good job of putting everything aside and focusing on each other and focusing on our individual play and playing at high level on defense.’’
The defense was turning the corner after Week 5, but was rocked when Hightower went down for the season in Week 8 with a torn pectoral muscle. Hightower was the nerve center of the front seven. He wore the green dot and was responsible for getting his guys in the proper places. He also was the guy that had a penchant for making big plays at big times.
Enter Van Noy, who not only took on the added responsibilities, he welcomed them.
“He’s embraced everything that we’ve thrown at him — and we’ve thrown a lot at him,’’ Flores said.
It wasn’t a surprise to Flores that Van Noy handled his new role — or roles — with aplomb. He quickly indentified Van Noy as a player who could adapt to change.
“You don’t want to throw too much on a guy’s plate initially,’’ Flores said. “You see how much he can handle and then you give a little bit more and a little bit more and a little bit more. He’s been able to handle a few different roles and he’s been a joy to work with. He’s had a decent amount of success — I don’t want any of that to get to his head — I let him know that, ‘We’re not there yet.’ But we’ll keep working and keep improving and we’ll see where it ends up.’’
As important as it was to keep the defense rolling despite losing Hightower, Van Noy said it was equally important for him to play to his strengths. He was confident in his athleticism and football knowledge that he could line up in almost any spot and be effective.
When asked what adjustments he had to make, Van Noy simply said, “Everything.’’
“Any time you have to — not replace — but step in for somebody like Hightower, he’s a big presence not only in the locker room but out on the field,’’ he said. “His communication, his IQ level is super high. For me, I just wanted to be the best me and communicate at a high level.”
When Van Noy was asked if thought there was any players that helped key the defensive turnaround — after allowing 128 points the first four games, the Patriots yielded just 168 over the final 12 — that had been underrated or deserved more attention, he jumped to the front of the line.
“I wouldn’t say attention because I don’t like attention, but I would put myself in that underrated category and I like it that way,’’ he said. “I feel like our whole defense is underrated. Everyone talks about our offense, but I feel like you can name every player on our defense and say they’re underrated or not talked about.”
He also said he’s fine with flying under the radar because the team’s success far outweighs individual accolades. Van Noy said he still can’t believe he’s about to play in his second straight Super Bowl.
“Oh hell no,’’ he said. “I wish I could write a book — hopefully when I’m done I can — about just how grateful I am to be a part of something that could be legendary. This is an honor.’’