FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – When New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick was jawing with Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen during Sunday’s game, it wasn’t lost on one player who was the first to have Belichick’s back.
It was linebacker Kyle Van Noy who returned verbal fire in Thielen’s direction, an exchange that highlighted his growing stature as a leader on the team.
That’s how safety and longtime captain Devin McCourty viewed it. Watching that exchange, and Van Noy’s quick ascent to that type of role since being acquired in a 2016 trade from the Detroit Lions, has been fun for McCourty to see unfold.
“The one thing I loved about KV when he first got here and started playing a lot more, he used to always look back at me and [safety Duron Harmon] and say, ‘I’m hungry.’ I think he’s a guy who probably felt a little outcast in Detroit, and he got here with a chip on his shoulder and he’s stayed that way,” McCourty said Wednesday.
“I think that’s why he’s been a leadership guy for us. A guy who can run the defense. A guy who plays multiple positions. It didn’t take long for us to really count on him.”
The Patriots (9-3), who can clinch the AFC East with a road win over the Miami Dolphins (6-6) on Sunday, are counting on Van Noy more than ever.
Van Noy leads the team in tackles (75), has played 88 percent of the defensive snaps in a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role and has filled in on the punt team in recent weeks to help solidify what had emerged as a troublesome area.
Such contributions haven’t generated much national buzz for the five-year veteran, but inside One Patriot Place -- and in opposing locker rooms -- many are taking notice.
“He’s been a nightmare for us, I know that,” Dolphins coach Adam Gase said. “He disrupts. He goes a great job setting the edge. If we ever try to run the ball to the edge [against him], it’s getting to the point where it’s kind of pointless -- he just shuts down the run to his side.
“That whole defensive line does a great job working their stunts; they set each other up so well. There’s a lot of unselfish football going on along the defensive front and he plays a big part of it.”
That unselfish play was noted in Belichick’s “plays of the week” segment on the Patriots’ official website this week, with Belichick spotlighting Van Noy’s work on Trey Flowers' key sack to help create the play. It's the type of effort that doesn't show up on the stat sheet under Van Noy's name, but gets him extra credit in coaches' film review.
“He’s a pleasure to have on our team and to coach,” Belichick said. “It depends on what we need him to do, but Kyle's done a lot of different things for us and he's done them well. He's certainly one of our more versatile players, so when you put together different schemes, having somebody like that that can adjust and execute those things, Kyle's a good guy to have.”
Added defensive playcaller Brian Flores: “I think he brings a great deal of energy to the group. He’s got a great spirit about him; people gravitate to him. He’s smart, he’s versatile, he does a good job with the younger players. The big thing for me is he’s a great teammate. He’s selfless, he’ll do whatever we ask him to do, winning’s important to him. Those are things we covet here, and he embodies a lot of those.”
Earning that type of respect from coaches and teammates is meaningful to Van Noy, as it can be easy for Patriots defenders to be overlooked because of the star power of the team’s offensive personnel, which includes quarterback Tom Brady, tight end Rob Gronkowski and receivers Josh Gordon and Julian Edelman.
“We hold ourselves to a high standard here," Van Noy said. "Whatever that position you're on the field, you're held at a standard that you may not have been somewhere else, or looked at differently somewhere else, and you want to do everything you can to meet that standard. You don't want to be the person singled out. That's the motivating factor for me: I don't want to let the guy next to me down."
That hasn't been a problem.
"He really studies the game and knows things in and out, and I think that's one of the big things that makes him who he is," said linebacker John Simon. "You can say he's underappreciated out there, but I don't think he's underappreciated at all in this locker room. We know what he does for this team."
"He's a smart guy who does his job. And he does a lot of jobs," added linebacker Elandon Roberts. "He embraces all the roles, and when there's a different role he needs to play, he can adjust to it really well and that makes him more elite as a player. He's also a great teammate. You know he's always going to have your back."
As Sunday showed, that includes Belichick's back as well.