Ja’Whaun Bentley was going full speed ahead.
The pair of Lions blockers in Bentley’s way? Well, they appeared to be moving in slow motion.
The Patriots linebacker shrugged off a phantom block from Oday Aboushi and then put Andrew Donnal on roller skates. It left a clear path to Tom Savage and Bentley engulfed the quarterback around the waist and violently spun him to the ground for the sack.
It was Bentley’s signature play during a handful of snaps in New England’s dominating 31-3 thrashing of Detroit last week at Ford Field.
Bentley was signaling the start of his second season in the same place where his promising rookie campaign ended in Week 3 because of a torn biceps.
The buzzword for New England’s linebacking corps is versatility. The three players at the top of the depth chart — Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, and Jamie Collins — all have a proven track record of filling multiple roles on one of the most multiple defenses in the league.
Now Bentley is poised to join them.
“Elite,’’ Van Noy said with a knowing smile when asked about the position grouping. “I think it’s very elite and I’m excited to let loose and see what we all can do together. I’m really excited for it. Some people have knocked us — ‘We’re slow and all that’ — but I’m excited to come out and play.’’
In two series Thursday night, Bentley played a little game of “Where’s Waldo” against the Lions as he lined up as an inside ’backer and right on the line.
Bentley played a little “What’s Waldo going to do,” as well, defending the run, dropping into coverage, and pressuring the quarterback.
Bentley was credited with one sack on the night, but his play directly contributed to two more. On Danny Shelton’s sack, Bentley stayed in coverage and muddled the middle of the defense, taking away a Savage safety valve. On Collins’s sack, Bentley picked up the back out of the backfield, again preventing Savage from dumping it quickly as Collins roared toward him like a runaway freight train.
Bentley’s play is a continuation of what he flashed last summer and into the fall before his injury. Despite being sidelined, Bentley was a regular presence at Gillette, rehabbing, attending meetings, and traveling with the team.
It’s a very similar path to the one former teammate Trey Flowers took. The defensive end also was sidelined early in his rookie year and used his time on the shelf to rehab, but also immerse himself in the Patriot culture.
Hightower was impressed with how Bentley would act as a sponge last season.
“All of last year he wasn’t one of the guys that went home or whatever,’’ he said. “He stayed around, was in on all of the meetings taking notes and stuff. Having guys like him around only helps not just our linebacker room, but the [whole] defense as well.’’
Bentley refused to label it a “red-shirt” year, though he did gain a lot of knowledge during that time. Bentley said it was important and invaluable to stay involved.
“Obviously you’d rather be on the field, but you just find a new role, whether that’s observing a lot of things about the guys, how they do things, or watching how guys operate,’’ he said.
Known for his leadership — he was the first three-time captain in Purdue history — the 6-foot-2-inch, 255-pound thumper is taking a patient approach to his pro career.
“I feel like some of the best leaders are amongst followers,’’ Bentley said. “So, you have to be a good follower first so you can see how things go. Obviously, we have guys who been playing for umpteen years and you can learn a lot from those guys, so you’ve got to find your role on the team, whether that’s leading or whether that’s following, you find it and you roll with it.’’
Bill Belichick has been impressed with the way Bentley has carried himself on the field and carried out his duties off it.
“Ja’Whaun’s a very hard-working kid and he does spend a lot of extra time [on football],’’ said the coach. “He has a lot of responsibilities at that position, from pass rushing to pass coverage, playing the run, defending play-action passes and so forth. He’s got good instincts and he’s been a productive player in the opportunities that he gets the chance. It’s one preseason game, so we’ll keep going and see how it goes.’’