Fletcher Shines at Calling the Plays

Patriots LB Dane Fletcher had a solid first preseason game. In fact, he played so well some wonder if he isn't the man to beat out for the spot headed into the regular season.

     When Jacksonville quarterback Blaine Gabbert surveyed the Patriots defense as he went under center Thursday night, the Jags were beginning their third drive of the game with the ball on their 18-yard line. As Gabbert scanned the field, Patriots inside linebacker Dane Fletcher stood about five yards away in the defensive backfield busy looking back at Gabbert and his offense.

      Fletcher, the second year linebacker who was calling the defensive plays for the first time, saw something in the Jags offensive formation and made an adjustment. He then raised his arms to make some hand signals and shouted out new plays. On these signals, outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich motioned from the right side of the defensive line to the left and Fletcher switched positions with fellow inside linebacker Gary Guyton to position himself in the middle of the field.

     As the ball was snapped, Fletcher sprinted to the line without hesitation and shot through the gap passed the center and quickly wrapped up the Jags ball carrier for a six-yard loss. Prior to the play, the Patriots defense started the game slow and allowed two scoring drives to open the game. Fletcher's play sparked the sluggish Pats as they took a 6-0 deficit late in the first quarter and turned it into a 19-9 halftime lead from that point on.

     "It took a few plays. The first drive was a little shaky," said Fletcher following the game. "Getting used to having the control out there for the first game was a little tough at first. But once I got the hang of it, I thought our whole defense played pretty well."

     With the cavalcade of defensive lineman brought into Patriots training camp this preseason, Fletcher began building a case to make the squad to back them. He currently sits behind Jerod Mayo, Gary Guyton, and Brandon Spikes on the depth chart at inside linebacker but his play during the first preseason game Thursday night showed he could play a key role this season if one of the starters were to go down. In the first half, Fletcher finished with five tackles (four solo) with two tackles going for losses and one for no gain. He did not play in the second half.

Fletcher tackles Jennings USPresswire
Dane Fletcher tackles  Jaguars RB Rashad Jennings
8/11/11 Stew Milne-US PRESSWIRE

     "It took just getting out there and finally just playing," said Fletcher on calling the defensive plays. "For the first few plays, there's a lot going on in your headset, a lot going on everywhere with adjustments ... Once you get settled in – and I felt like I got settled in after the first drive – I think our defense played pretty well after that."

     Fletcher, at 6-foot-2, 244 pounds, came to the Patriots last season signing as an undrafted rookie free agent. He played on the defensive line at Montana State, but transitioned to middle linebacker when he came to the Patriots. Coach Bill Belichick said he was satisfied with Fletcher's growth into the new position.

     "Dane has come a long way in terms of his understanding of the defense, calling signals, making adjustments and those kinds of things," said Belichick after the game. "And the signal calling is really a new responsibility for him, but we felt like it would be good to give that to him instead of Gary [Guyton]. Gary has done it before, so just to give Dane that experience tonight and see how he handled it seemed to go fairly smoothly. We still got fouled up there a couple times, but overall it was decent."

     Belichick has coached two other players in his career transitioning from defensive lineman to linebacker, Tedy Bruschi with the Patriots and Harry Carson with the Giants back in the 80s. Both players made the transition with great success. Bruschi helped lead the Patriots to three Super Bowl Championships and Carson was a 2006 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee.

      There are no delusions that Fletcher will be half as good as Bruschi and Carson, but there is a chance he can still help the Patriots win this season. Patriots fans first became aware of Fletcher in Week 15 of last season against the Green Bay Packers when he sacked quarterback Matt Flynn on the Packers final drive of the game to help clinch a Patriots victory. He played in 13 games last season, including one playoff game, and finished with 23 tackles, two sacks, one interception, one forced fumble, and two pass deflections.  

     "Yeah, I'm a linebacker now. There's no way I'm going back to D-line – completely," said Fletcher. "I feel comfortable as a linebacker in this scheme and whatever they can use me as. This is a great place for me … There's a lot we have to work on."

Kevin Saleeba is a frequent contributor and columnist to Patriots Insider. A former beat writer for local media, Kevin has extensive knowledge of the team and experience covering the Patriots. Share your thoughts on this article, or send your questions to Kevin (here. )

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