Nate Ebner Stepping into Hybrid Linebacker Role for Patriots

Nate Ebner worked next to linebackers Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower on Sunday. (NFL Game Rewind)

A core special-teamer, Nate Ebner got to work next to linebackers Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower on Sunday against the Vikings. (NFL Game Rewind)

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.

(NFL Game Rewind)

(NFL Game Rewind)

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.

(NFL Game Rewind)

(NFL Game Rewind)

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.

(NFL Game Rewind)

(NFL Game Rewind)

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.

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9 Responses to “Nate Ebner Stepping into Hybrid Linebacker Role for Patriots”

  1. Pats #1 fan says:

    I think most of the above comments are insane. Think Coach Bill would play someone he is going to cut to give him a look for other teams…no way. Coach plays to win and puts players in to help the team do so. Ebner is the kind of guy Coach would love, quiet, unassuming hard working blue collar type. Ebner’s play will grow and in his early 20’s will be a mainstay on the Patriots!

  2. Russell says:

    Patriots are thin at LB , so Ebner maybe considered there, no-way he is cut when Browner returns.

    • steve earle says:

      Perhaps not, but he has to be on the list of possable cuts when it happens. After all how many DB’s does Bill carry on the roster? By my count there are 11 now do you really think he makes it 12 and if so what position does bill trim?

  3. Grendel_the_Dog says:

    Ebner actually pushed the tackle back toward the QB on the play where Hightower got the sack. It was impressive.

  4. Dylan.C says:

    Love NateDawg! If I was more confident he was going to be around for the long haul I would definitely get an Ebner jersey. Hopefully they sign him to a cheap extension as a core special teamer.

    • steve earle says:

      Worth considering is that Bill likes the guy but with a crowded backfield and Browner coming off suspension soon, Bill just might be trying to give the guy some exposer in case he’s the guy he has to release. Helping him possably catch on with another team? Just a thought.

      • MaineMan says:

        Entirely possible.

        OTOH, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a DB-for-DB swap out. There are a couple recent moves that make the context a bit murkier. First, there was the claim for Don Jones – yet another special-teams ace/DB. Then, there was the promotion of rookie ILB Deonte Skinner to take snaps in Collins’ absence – instead of using Chris White (Fleming was “demoted”, perhaps temporarily, since he’s and edge-player only at this point). So, White might be somewhat vulnerable, though I should note that both White and Skinner were 4-unit special-teamers last week.

        There’s also the fact that they’re currently carrying nine OL. That’s not a particularly unusual number historically for the Pats, and it makes sense if the lineup is still unsettled as it seems to have been so far. If they have that figured out by the end of week-5 (4-wk suspension plus the 1-wk “grace period” exemption), they could shift an OL down to the PSQ (Devey or Kline) or possibly cut Wendell, assuming that Stork is 100%.

        On a side note –

        I’m not sure where it comes from, but a lot of folks seem to have the impression that Ebner is a “smaller guy”. He’s not. At 6’0″ he’s the second tallest safety (Harmon is 1/4″ taller), and at +/-205, he’s pretty much the same bulk/heft as Chung. Ebner also posted 23 reps, 2nd only to Chung (25) among Pats DBs. Ebner’s 128″ broad jump is the best among the DBs (Don Jones is 2nd at 127″) and 3rd on the team behind Collins (137″) and Boyce (131″). Ebner’s 39″ vertical is also 3rd on the team behind Don Jones (42″) and Collins (41.4″). Ebner’s 4.04 shuttle is 2nd on the team to Edelman (3.96) and his 6.59 3-cone is second on the team to Revis (6.56). — So, Ebner is good size and has exceptional athleticism. Don Jones is right up there, too. Wilson and Chung are pretty good athletically, as well. Ebner, Jones and Wilson (along with Skinner and Chris White) were 4-unit special-teamers against Minny, and Chung was on two units.

        In any case, there’s bound to be some interesting roster-shuffling when Browner and Tyms come off suspension.

      • GM-in-Training says:

        More likely would be to look at the junior Linebackers who could be waived and possibly put on the practice squad as release candidates after week 5.

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