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FOXBOROUGH — The game doesn’t stop just because he’s on the sideline. So Patrick Chung doesn’t let his mind go to sleep.
In practice, if the reps aren’t his, he mentally makes his play calls from the sideline. On game days, on the snaps he isn’t in, he still gets the calls from the coaches and makes them as if he was. He watches and re-watches game tape. So even if the physical reps he’s getting aren’t the same, the mental ones are.
“So when you go in there, you’re not mentally fried,” he said Friday. “You go in there and everything just comes because you’ve been doing it on the sideline the whole time.”
Between shoulder and hamstring injuries, Chung has missed four games this season, and while he was out the Patriots made over their secondary, acquiring cornerback Aqib Talib, moving Devin McCourty from corner to safety alongside Steve Gregory and leaving fewer reps for Chung once he returned.
In the Patriots’ first six games, Chung played 91 percent of the team’s 395 defensive snaps. In the four games since he returned in Week 11 against the Jets, he’s been on the field for just 65 snaps. Even though he’s in the last year of the four-year, $5 million contract, he says the number of snaps don’t matter as much as what he does with them.
“Every snap’s important,” he said. “If you get 100 snaps or you get 20 snaps, you’ve got to try to make them as good as possible.”
Since training camp, he’s kept public talks of his upcoming free agency to a minimum. In the thick of a season snagged by injury, his more immediate concerns are getting on the field and performing.
“I can’t worry about that stuff right now,” he said. “I’ve just got to get better, stay consistent, get in the playbook, and whenever your number is called just go out there.”
Initially, there weren’t as many opportunities for him when he returned.
He played 22 snaps against the Jets, then just eight against the Dolphins, 16 in a crucial Monday night game against the AFC-leading Texans, and 19 last week against the 49ers.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick called his number in the second half against San Francisco, sitting Gregory. Belichick said the decision wasn’t about Gregory’s performance but what Chung brought to the defense.
“Patrick has done a great job for us in many different areas, whether it’s his coverage ability or his ability to tackle or to adapt in different situations,” Belichick said. “He certainly has some good experience, played a lot of football for us, and has that side to bring to the game also. It’s a different array of things that he can do that help us in different situations that allows us to be a little bit more multiple in different packages.”
Chung has been under Belichick long enough to know how things work. Players are often left wondering how much of a role they’ll play in an upcoming game.
“We never know until that day,” Chung said. “Then he makes his decision and we’re out there to play, whoever’s out there.”
But certain things are clear.
“Performers are going to play,” he said. “If you’re performing good and you’re playing good consistently, you’re going to play.”
Chung missed half the regular season last year with a foot injury, before returning for the finale against Buffalo and the three-game Super Bowl run. He hasn’t played a full season since his rookie year, but he shrugs off the notion that injuries have set him back in any significant way.
“Injuries come,” he said. “You get hurt, but you’ve got to try to keep your rhythm. You might get a little bit out of rhythm but you’re never totally out of synch. It might take you a couple plays to get back in synch, but then you’re good from there.”
Chung had four tackles against the 49ers, and playing alongside him, McCourty said it feels like Chung is returning to pre-injury form.
“The more time he gets to come back and play more, you just see his old self coming back,” McCourty said. “He’s able to be more aggressive. I thought last game he had some good hits just laying his shoulder on people. I think when guys have injuries and they come back, you start seeing them get in a good vibe and get back in the groove, that’s been good for him.”
No matter how many snaps he sees, he’ll be ready.
“I’m just waiting and whenever my number’s called,” Chung said, “I’m out there.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.