FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots have placed a heavy emphasis on special teams entering Sunday's home opener against the Arizona Cardinals, as it's an area in which the Cardinals have shown a knack for making game-changing plays.
This provides a nice springboard to spotlight one of the Patriots' more compelling individual storylines from the young 2012 season -- the unexpected rise of rugby-turned-football player Nate Ebner, the sixth-round draft choice from Ohio State whose draft-day selection was so far off the radar that analysts were tongue-tied to say anything about him.
Yes, it's the same Ebner who played a team-high 22 special-teams snaps in this past Sunday's 34-13 season-opening win over the Titans, finishing with a team-high two special-teams tackles. One of those tackles was Larry Izzo-like, as he fearlessly surged down the middle of the field and dropped dangerous returner Darius Reynaud with a sound one-on-one open-field takedown.
Such plays, coupled with consistent work since he overcame injury to take the field in the second week of training camp, have caught the eye of some of the team's more established veterans.
"He's going to be an impact player and help the team out a lot," said linebacker Tracy White, now in the 10th season of a career in which he's carved out a niche on special teams. "He has good instincts and he's a hard-nosed player. From the way he goes about meetings and studies, he knows what he's doing. He's telling me things at times."
White recalled one play on the punt-protection unit from last week that reflected Ebner's veteran-like presence. The two line up side by side on the punt team, and in addition to communicating what they see in front of them, there is an element of them reading each other once the ball is snapped.
"He said something about what he saw -- I saw it, too -- and to hear it come from a rookie, it was surprising," White said.
In some ways, the Patriots' selection of Ebner was similar to what they pulled off in 2008 when they drafted UCLA's Matthew Slater in the fifth round. While other teams might have viewed the Patriots as reaching for Slater, who wasn't a front-line contributor on offense or defense in college, the Patriots had a specific special-teams type role in mind (Slater earned a Pro Bowl berth for special teams in 2011).
Ditto for Ebner, whose early impact in that area hasn't seemed to surprise coach Bill Belichick. It's been Ebner's solid work on defense, where he played just three snaps for Ohio State in 2011, that has seemingly come out of nowhere, as he had an interception in the preseason and was consistently around the ball in practice.
"Instinctively, he kind of has a nose for the ball [and understands] leverage, and how to play off blockers and read the quarterback," Belichick said. "It's not perfect, but he has a little bit of a knack for that. He sees other things around him and has a way of putting it together."
If not for Ebner's surprising work on defense, the Patriots might have kept veteran safety James Ihedigbo at the final roster cut-down. Instead, they have Ebner and second-round draft choice Tavon Wilson as their top reserves behind Steve Gregory and Patrick Chung.
Belichick highlighted Ebner's solid size (6-foot, 210 pounds), good speed and quickness, toughness, and sound tackling as some of the things he has going for him. All of which leads to the question: How could he have played just three defensive snaps last season for Ohio State?
"I don't have the answers to anything like that," Ebner politely said Friday as he taped his wrists for practice. "All I can say is that I learned a great deal at Ohio State. There were great coaches, it was a great place to be and I wouldn't trade it for the world. I learned so much there, and it was a huge part of me being where I am today."
Belichick drew a comparison between Ebner and former Patriots offensive lineman Stephen Neal, a collegiate wrestler who ultimately became a solid contributor for the team from 2004 to 2010. When the Patriots were scouting Neal, they were projecting what he might be able to do.
"It's hard to see instincts on a wrestling mat," Belichick said. "You don't know how those things are going to turn out, but I would say Nate has better-than-average overall [instincts] and a feel for the game that I don't want to say you can't coach, but some guys have more than others. I would say at this point early in the running, it seems like he has a pretty decent instinctive nature for the game."
Ebner, who hails from Dublin, Ohio, said his instincts come from hard work on the practice field. He took the same approach at Ohio State.
"All the days that were out there grinding, I'd say you develop your instincts through that," he said, adding that he's a harsh critic of himself in terms of never wanting to make the same mistake twice. "And then the more games and experience you get, the better your instincts become."
For Belichick, underrated director of player personnel Nick Caserio and the rest of the team's scouting staff, seeing Ebner make an early impression is part of the reward for their hard work. Belichick compared it to the scouting of Kent State quarterback Julian Edelman in 2009, and how the team switched him to receiver and punt returner. Quarterback Matt Cassel, who had hardly played in college, was a similar example of a player with whom the team was making a projection in the draft (seventh round, 2005).
"There are some unknowns when you do that," Belichick said. "Sometimes you're right, sometimes you're wrong or sometimes for whatever reason it just doesn't work out. That's pretty unscientific. You take the information you have, do the best you can to analyze it and look at it, but it's far from a sure thing."
The early returns on Ebner indicate otherwise.
In a week when the Patriots are placing a heavy emphasis on special teams, the Patriots' out-of-nowhere rookie drew praise from Belichick.