“One of the top targets in this game was to stop the running game,” Bill Belichick tells host Scott Zolak, a black gator covering much of his face as he stands before a video monitor in a separate studio during these socially-distanced days of mid-November 2020. “This will be Kyle Dugger here, coming up to force on the play.”
We listen to Belichick as we are shown the so-called ‘All-22,’ a midfield, wide-angle and overhead view of the Pats’ defense facing Baltimore’s offense. A graphic across the lower third of our screen notes the situation.
It’s the first minute of the first quarter in an empty Gillette Stadium and the Ravens have nearly a ‘full-house’ in their backfield. Lamar Jackson is beside tight end Nick Boyle, who shifts from the quarterback’s right to left hip, and in front of running back Mark Ingram.
Twelve months earlier, in a jam-packed, pre-pandemic M&T Bank Stadium juiced for a primetime visit by previously unbeaten New England, Jackson and Ingram ripped through the defense. Combined, they totaled 176 of host Baltimore’s 210 rushing yards in a runaway win, 37-20.
But here, as we see from the side and, as Belichick repeatedly rewinds the video, from behind the play, Dugger will make a difference. Jackson takes the snap and tosses to Ingram, who follows Boyle pulling to the left.
Dugger, both aggressive and controlled, closes and out-leverages the lead blocker. He gives up a good 40 pounds to Boyle. But on this play, like most, Dugger is the stronger player, pound for pound-plus.
He sticks his feet, lowers his left shoulder and spins Boyle to the turf, setting a firm edge before helping to bring down Ingram for a yard loss.
The Ravens will end their 23-17 defeat in a downpour, with little more than half the rushing yards (115) and less than half the points they amassed in their prior matchup. Dugger will wind up with a game-high dozen tackles, a bright spot on a dreary day amid dreary times.
But as we wait on the next encounter of Pats and Ravens in this weekend’s home opener, Dugger is a question mark. A reported knee injury kept him out of the second half Sunday at Pittsburgh and on the sideline for practices Wednesday and Thursday.
Unless it improves quickly, it could keep Dugger from filling an important role, as we’ve seen in the past, in the Patriots’ effort to slow down Jackson and company.
Jabrill Peppers, seen here warming up before Wednesday’s practice, made two key stops in Sunday’s win at Pittsburgh. (Photo by Bob Socci)
Jabrill Peppers played 17 defensive snaps — two fewer than Dugger — against the Steelers. It was his second appearance as a Patriot and second game since tearing his right ACL as a New York Giant in Week 6 of 2021.
Signed to an incentive-laden contract as a free agent in the spring, Peppers eased his way onto the field in training camp and didn’t play in preseason until the third and final game. Not that he needed much time to prove himself a fit in Foxborough.
“He fits in really well,” defensive play caller Steve Belichick says of Peppers, a newcomer to a familiar safety group featuring Dugger, Adrian Phillips and Devin McCourty. “He’s coming back from the knee injury so he was just a little behind those guys getting onto the field. Dug, AP, Dev, obviously those guys have played here together for a couple of years, so he’s integrated really well with those guys.”
Spelling Dugger and joining Phillips and McCourty in Pittsburgh, the broad-shouldered Peppers made two big stops, back-to-back, as the Steelers drove toward a possible tie midway through the third quarter.
Before a 2nd-and-10 from the Pats’ 35-yard line, Peppers was positioned next to Mack Wilson at linebacker when most of Pittsburgh’s offense faked a Najee Harris run right and quarterback Mitchell Trubisky threw back to Diontae Johnson in the left flat. Peppers read it and, one-on-one, brought down Johnson for just a two-yard pickup.
The following play, with Peppers aligned 10 yards off the ball, Trubisky again threw short left, for running back Jaylen Warren. Peppers broke before the ball was out and, borrowing from Ian Eagle of CBS, “stamped” the receiver for no gain.
Peppers’s finishing touch, forcing the Steelers to settle for a long field goal to make it 10-6, resulted from obvious trademarks of his brief experience in New England.
“It’s hard to not notice his energy, his excitement, his love for football, how passionate he is out there on the field,” said Steve Belichick, who scouted Peppers as a collegian at Michigan. “He’s a tough guy, he’s a Jersey guy. So you know what you’re going to get there from him.”
Playing for Joe Judge in New York eased Peppers’s adjustment to playing for Bill Belichick in New England. (Brad Mills/USA TODAY Sports)
When then coach Joe Judge brought Big Blue to Foxborough for joint practices in 2021, Peppers appreciated how his counterparts handled themselves. Speaking last spring in a post-signing Zoom conference with New England media, Peppers recalled being struck by the Pats’ conditioning and discipline.
“It didn’t matter if it was the first, second (or) third team, everybody knew they had a job to do,” he said in April, while also expressing an intrigue in being coached by Bill Belichick. “Playing for Bill, his understanding of the game, what he’s done for the game, the moment I had an opportunity to come learn from him I definitely wanted to jump at it.
“He’s seen a lot of ball. He’s coached in a lot of eras. So I’m just more so excited to pick his brain, see things how he sees it, curious to see how he watches film or breaks down opposing offenses.”
Playing for Judge, as Peppers explained this week, enabled him to easily transition to playing for Belichick. Judge, the once-and-again Belichick assistant, in Peppers’s words, “tried to implement a lot of the Patriot methods” in the Meadowlands.
“I kind of feel like I already played here (and) just had to get used to the new guys,” Peppers said.
He also had to show, after months of monotony rehabbing his knee, that he was physically ready for live reps.
“It was definitely hard. I was pushing them to let me out there but they had my best interests at hand, they had a great plan for me,” Peppers says. “But once I was able to start playing football again I wanted to keep playing football.
“You’ve got to build your volume up, get your body in football playing shape and when you come back make sure you don’t leave the field again. That was my whole thing, when I came back I wanted to make sure I was back.”
Through two weeks, Peppers has played 29 percent of the Pats’ defensive snaps, while appearing on roughly 60 percent of their special teams plays. Depending on Dugger’s status, he could see an increase come Sunday.
More or less, Peppers will appreciate it all the same. That much will be hard not to notice.
“Whenever something gets taken away from you that you love, when you come back it’s just that much more meaningful,” he says. “Every time I’m out there I just try to leave it all out there, be a source of energy for my guys and just try to lead by example.”
Bob Socci is in his 10th season calling play-by-play for the Patriots Radio Network on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.