After Alfonzo Dennard made his NFL debut just three weeks ago, the rookie cornerback admitted he was "nervous" taking the field for the first time. Now, just three games into his professional career, Dennard's confidence is already beginning to blossom.
With Devin McCourty shifting back to fill in at safety, Dennard got his first career start on Sunday against the Jets. And he was sure to make the most of it.
Dennard, who had just four interceptions during his four-year career at Nebraska, picked off his first NFL pass on Sunday; a play Dennard said had him "feeling good."
"It was a very good feeling. It's always a good feeling to have an interception. So definitely feeling good afterward," Dennard told NESN.com after the game.
The interception wasn't an easy play to make, though, and it proved to be a key play given New England's offensive struggles on the day.
With the Patriots holding a 16-7 lead midway through the second quarter; Mark Sanchez and the Jets began a long drive deep into New England territory. Facing a second and 10 inside the Patriots 40, Sanchez noticed a wide-open Stephen Hill down the sideline for what would have been a momentum-swinging touchdown. Dennard had other ideas in mind.
Sanchez was a little late on the throw, giving Dennard enough time to back track on the play and get position on Hill. The smaller but physical Dennard, just 5-foot-10 but nearly 210 pounds, asserted his place in front of Hill on the play and was able to miraculously out-jump the 6-foot-4 receiver for the interception.
Dennard admitted that the pick gave him an added boost of confidence, but was adamant that he didn't let it interrupt his focus.
"It kind of did [build my confidence], but you always have to stay focused," Dennard said of the interception. "That's one play, there's 1,000 more plays after that. So you just have to keep your head level and go out there and just stay focused."
The sort of heads-up, physical aggression Dennard plays with is exactly what Bill Belichick is looking for. It has also contributed to Dennard's expanded role in the secondary.
"He’s a strong kid. He’s 200 pounds, he has good playing strength," Belichick said of Dennard after the 29-26 overtime win. " But [the Jets] have some big, physical [receivers] there; you have to battle with them."
Dennard has seen increased playing time in each of his three games for the Patriots. His initial debut came as a result of some mediocre play by fellow corners Sterling Moore and Kyle Arrington against the Broncos and it's only continued to grow since. But the more work he's seen, the better Dennard has looked for New England on the outside.
On Sunday, Dennard played a 82 of the Patriots 84 defensive snaps, showing just how much Belichick trusted his play on the outside. Sure, the Patriots secondary is a bit mangled by injuries right now, but Dennard still saw the same amount of plays as Arrington and far more than both Moore or Ras-I Dowling.
The return of Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory may cut into Dennard's playing time some, but his role in the Patriots defense will only continue to grow as the season wears on. A reality Belichick and the Patriots should openly welcome, at least if they hope to turn this porous secondary into something even moderately resembling NFL-caliber.
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Photo via Twitter/@FonzieDennard15