ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Kyle Van Noy was unabashed in his support for the Red Sox during their run to the World Series championship.
The Patriots linebacker, who was among the first to predict a big October bounce back for David Price, revealed last week that baseball was his “hidden talent.’’
“Nobody knows, I used to play ball back in the day — I was supposed to be drafted,’’ said Van Noy, explaining that he “got too tall to bend over for ground balls.”
Van Noy’s not-so-hidden talent is his ability to adapt, lead, and make big plays for New England’s defense.
With Dont’a Hightower a late scratch Monday night as he recovers from a knee injury, Van Noy slid into the middle linebacker spot, assuming the role of the central communicator for the front seven. He had played mostly on the line of scrimmage as an edge defender/pass rusher this season and did some of that, too, against the Bills.
He went after the quarterback less than usual Monday night, but he made those efforts count against the Bills, registering a pair of second-half sacks and spearheading a defense that picked up the Patriots on a night when the offense scuffled.
On his first sack, which came with the Patriots clinging to a 9-6 lead, Van Noy forced a fumble that New England capitalized on with Stephen Gostkowski’s fourth field goal of the night.
Lined up on the defensive right side, Van Noy flashed a great first step and beat left tackle Dion Dawkins (you might say he whiffed on Van Noy’s fastball) before lowering the boom on Derek Anderson.
Van Noy was stationed as a middle linebacker on his second sack. New England dialed up a blitz and Van Noy charged right up Main Street and hammered Anderson, who had to leave the game just after the two-minute warning.
Bills running back Marcus Murphy failed miserably on his blitz pick-up read, allowing Van Noy to storm past him and thump Anderson.
Van Noy, who finished with a team-high eight tackles, said after the game it’s hard to step in for someone of Hightower’s ability but when he needed guidance, he went right to the source. Hightower spent the game on the sideline and acted as sort of an extra assistant coach.
Van Noy wasn’t willing to divulge any of Hightower’s advice, however.
“I can’t tell you,’’ he said. “That’s a secret.”
Van Noy wasn’t the only defensive standout (Trey Flowers, Patrick Chung, and Devin McCourty to name a few) on a night when the visitors allowed just 333 yards – including just 46 on the ground — and never let the Bills into the red area.
Upon further film review, here are some other things that stood out as the 6-2 Patriots ran their winning streak to five.
The fourth-year defensive end talks softly but he sure plays big. His ability to disengage from his blocker quickly and be disruptive against the run and the pass is impressive.
Take his back-to-back plays in the first quarter. On the first, his lightning stack and shed of tight end Charles Clay allowed him to jolt LeSean McCoy (who had taken a Wildcat snap) for a 3-yard loss. He followed by deftly fending off Jordan Mills’s rolling cut block (it was a half-hearted effort at best by the Bills tackle) with a nice step-back move. Then he jumped into Anderson’s passing lane and took the ball in the chest.
Devin McCourty has waited nine seasons to score his first defensive touchdown and it was pretty clear he wanted it, kicking into high gear — he was clocked at 22 miles per hour, according to NFL Next Gen Stats — as he raced down the left sideline with a convoy of teammates. That’s the fastest clocked ballcarrier in the NFL this season.
On the play, McCourty did a brilliant job of reading Anderson’s eyes as the QB locked on to Clay down the seam. The tight end was covered closely by Chung, who may have had a chance to pick it himself. He never got the chance as McCourty swooped in and took it to the house NASCAR style.
“I guess a gained a step back,’’ said McCourty, answering critics who claimed he’d slowed down. “I got to showcase a little bit of speed. So, 31, hopefully I can hold on to my speed a little bit longer.’’
It was a quiet night statistically for Rob Gronkowski, who still doesn’t look 100 percent as he battles back and ankle injuries. He had just three catches on eight targets but did have one flash that could indicate his getting close.
One play after Van Noy’s strip-sack, Tom Brady went to Gronkowski, who had drawn one-on-one coverage with a cornerback (that’s a mismatch). Phillip Gaines played Gronkowski tight at the line, but didn’t get physical. Gronkowski went by him and pretty much plucked Brady’s pass off Gaines’s helmet while tightroping the sideline to the Bills’ 7.
“I said in the huddle [as the play was reviewed], ‘If I’m out, it was literally by the littlest bit in like ever,’ ’’ Gronkowski said.
The Gronkowski catch put the Patriots in excellent position to seize control of the game, but they were unable to punch it in and had to settle for a field goal.
The Bills defense was particularly stout in the red zone, covering well and pressuring effectively.
“Can’t come away with field goals all day — and that comes down to execution,’’ Gronkowski said. “Getting more open and giving Tom more room to throw the ball.’’
Here’s a plus – no minuses
McCourty’s interception gave the Patriots at least one interception in every game this season — and they could have had two more. Flowers just missed one on his aforementioned knock down and Elandon Roberts nearly nabbed one he might have been able to score on.
New England didn’t have any turnovers for the first time this season.
Stephon Gilmore gave up a rare deep catch — a 40-yarder to Kelvin Benjamin. Gilmore was mildly upset about the catch, complaining to officials that Benjamin pushed off. He was right. The next time Anderson went to Benjamin, the receiver did the same thing and was flagged for it.