Establishing an identity is still “a week-to-week challenge’’ for the Patriots’ defense, coach Bill Belichick said during a conference call Monday afternoon.
In spite of the unit’s well-rounded performance in Sunday’s 24-10 victory against the Vikings, Belichick was quick to note he doesn’t think “what happened [Sunday]’’ is important as the team prepares for their upcoming divisional matchup in Miami.
“It will all be how it all manifests itself this week,’’ Belichick said. “We’ll be starting all over again. We already have. We already started to start all over again.’’
Still, Sunday’s victory was a step in the right direction for a defense that has battled inconsistencies this season. New England was able to mitigate the two-headed attack of Vikings wide receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, limiting the tandem to a combined 77 yards on 10 receptions — a showing well-below their combined season averages of 190.6 and 16.8.
Much of the attention was focused on the coverage from the Patriots’ secondary, but the linebackers also pulled their weight in short-yardage situations and the rushing game. Vikings running back Dalvin Cook was targeted a season-high 10 times, though his eight catches only yielded 22 yards. Dont’a Hightower, Elandon Roberts, and Kyle Van Noy each recorded five tackles, as New England held Cook and Latavius Murray to 95 combined rushing yards.
Belichick said Hightower and Roberts have developed “good anticipation’’ and “good awareness’’ in sniffing out the differences between runs and play-actions. For play-action calls, he highlighted the duo’s ability to detect the voided area that the offense would like to keep open for the receiver.
“It doesn’t show up in the stat sheet [and] doesn’t look like much, but when they do that, it probably saves you 20 yards — it could be more — but let’s call it 20 yards or so on defense,’’ Belichick said. “Those are really big plays for your defensive unit to be able to eliminate if a linebacker can make that play. That’s an important play for us.’’
Hightower, who logged 97 percent of the defensive snaps Sunday, also garnered praise for his leadership.
“High always does a good job,’’ Belichick said. “Any time High is on the field, our communication — certainly at his position and with the people that he works with — is always good, whether that’s in pass rush or pass coverage or formation adjustments and checks and so forth. It doesn’t matter if he’s on the end of the line or off the line or up in the line in pass-rush situations, but his communication and experience and overall instinctiveness as a football player and in our system is extremely valuable.’’
Belichick revealed there’s nobody he respects more in football than Alabama head coach Nick Saban.
“Period,’’ he said.
The evening of the SEC Championship, Belichick was at Gillette Stadium preparing for the Vikings when Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts rushed 15 yards into the end zone with 64 seconds remaining against the Georgia Bulldogs. Hurts propelled the Crimson Tide to an electrifying two-touchdown, second-half comeback and preserved Alabama’s undefeated record.
Under Saban, the program is 145-20.
“The way his teams perform, I don’t think anybody has done it better than he has,’’ Belichick said. “I think probably every coach in football is trying to do it as well as he does it and has done it. They do a tremendous job there, and Nick’s a tremendous coach.’’
The pair forged a friendship nearly 30 years ago when Saban was the defensive coordinator and Belichick was the head coach of the Cleveland Browns.
While neither of their tenures in Brown and Orange lasted very long, the two have remained in touch.
“I certainly learned a lot from him during the time we were together,’’ Belichick said. “Whenever we get chances to visit him, it’s always a great opportunity for me to learn from somebody I respect so much and know how much knowledge and real football application he has — what you can do, what you can’t do, what looks good on the board and what actually looks good on the field.’’
No hard feelings
Belichick said he doesn’t “even really remember what happened’’ during his fourth-quarter exchange with Thielen — one that caught the attention of viewers because of the choice language.
“I have a lot of respect for Thielen,’’ Belichick said during his weekly WEEI appearance Monday. “I think we’ve all moved on. I have a lot of respect for him, the way he plays the game, [and] what he’s accomplished.’’