NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
There were no expectations for Nate Ebner when the New England Patriots selected him at pick No. 197 overall in the 2012 NFL draft.
The youngest ever national sevens rugby player turned Ohio State football walk-on was still learning the game, having never played a down at Hilliard Davidson High School just 20 minutes away. But it didn’t take long for the 6’0”, 210-pound Ebner to find his purpose in Foxborough, the same way he did on his way to becoming a team captain and Bo-Rein Award recipient in Columbus.
By being a core special-teamer.
Ebner went on to play 15 games as a Patriots rookie in 2012, registering 12 tackles as a big-four player. And in 2013, he registered another nine tackles to go with two fumble recoveries. Yet, heading into his third season in New England, the 25-year-old had played a total of 41 snaps on the defensive side of the ball, according to Pro Football Focus. Just five transpired over the season prior.
It remained to be seen how, or where, he would play another. With former Patriots draft choices Patrick Chung, Tavon Wilson and Duron Harmon all filtering in next to free safety Devin McCourty, options abound. But, even as cornerbacks Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan spelled on the back end of the secondary, Ebner ultimately remained in the fold to do the same.
That was evidenced last Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings.
Ebner played 14 snaps on defense over the course of New England’s 30-7 win. Yet on 11 of those snaps, he was the third safety on the field. And he was, in a sense, not a safety at all.
He was a hybrid linebacker stepping down into the box for 3-2 defensive fronts.
It started on 3rd-and-16 with 25 seconds to go before halftime. Ebner stepped onto the field in lieu of a fourth defensive lineman or recently called-up linebacker Deontae Skinner.
The Matt Cassel pass down the left sideline was ruled incomplete, but it would not be the only pass thrown with Ebner next to linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jerod Mayo. In all, 10 of the 11 plays he was in for the 3-2 dime sub package yielded pass attempts.
The passing situations called for it. The only instance that did not was a kneel-down to take the Minnesota into intermission.
By game’s end, Ebner had dropped back into zone coverage and also covered tight end Kyle Rudolph.
He had walked down to the line of scrimmage for the blitz as well.
It was there that he met 6’8”, 343-pound right tackle Phil Loadholt. But Hightower met Cassel across from him for the sack, and a loss of eight was the byproduct.
Ebner was not credited with a tackle on defense. His lone tackle of the Week 2 contest occurred on special teams, where he served as personal punt protector for Ryan Allen.
Even so, when Ebner was on the field for those 10 pass plays in the 3-2 front, the collective outcome was significant. Minnesota went 1-of-7 passing for 17 yards, as Cassel was intercepted once and sacked three times.
The presence of No. 43 is not a direct correlation. There is not an Ebner effect to explain the success of the Patriots’ opportunistic defense. But versus distinguishable passing scenarios and two-minute drills moving forward, his presence will be worth monitoring.
Maybe there is something to it.