Wright about as good as it gets

In rare act, Belichick raves about lineman

By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / December 22, 2009

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FOXBOROUGH - Patriots coach Bill Belichick stood behind the lectern at his news conference yesterday and rattled off a list of things he liked about Sunday, a common and banal ritual on the Monday following a victory. The topics were mundane - third-down defense, perimeter blocking on punt returns - until Belichick broke protocol. He mentioned one player, and only one player, by name.

“Mike Wright had a tremendous game,’’ Belichick said. “About as good as a defensive lineman can play, really.’’

The Patriots relied on him, and Wright played, he believed, the best game of his life. Wright replaced Ty Warren as a starter at defensive end against the Bills, and by game’s end he had contributed from every position and in every way a defensive lineman can.

Wright played end, tackle, and nose guard. He made a sack, he dropped a running back for a loss, and he tackled a wide receiver 30 yards downfield. Playing without Warren and Vince Wilfork, the Patriots allowed 105 rushing yards - only 21 in the second half - to a Bills team determined to run the ball.

In his fifth year of a career spent entirely with the Patriots, Wright holds no illusions about his job. “I’m a backup,’’ he said. “That’s my role on this team.’’ He knows how infrequent opportunities like Sunday’s can be, and he knows the importance of seizing them.

Belichick rarely offers such strident public praise. Apprised of the remarks, Wright tried to suppress a smile in front of his locker yesterday. He couldn’t.

“It feels good, especially coming from Coach,’’ Wright said. “I try to up my standards a little bit every game. I expect a lot out of myself, and I think [Sunday] was just a product of my preparation and my hard work throughout the week.’’

Two plays defined Wright’s game, and the first came early in the second quarter. Wright knew he would play the entire game, and by early in the second quarter, Wright had settled into more of a rhythm than usual. He already had a sack, the first for the Patriots and his fifth this season.

The Bills had established their running game, and they called another off-tackle play to Marshawn Lynch. Wright burst through the line, chased Lynch down from the backside, and enveloped Lynch, dragging him down for a 3-yard loss.

“From then on, I was enjoying myself,’’ Wright said. “It was fun.’’

Wright forgets when, exactly, the moment came that changed his season. He entered the NFL undrafted, and he believes his work ethic provided him his career. Earlier this season, in the course of his daily routine, he saw something that shocked him.

“I don’t know what happened,’’ Wright said. “All I know is, I watched myself on film one day and I realized that I wasn’t hustling like I used to. What got me here is my hustle. And I think I kind of overlooked that part of this season. I’ve been trying to put an emphasis on it in practice.’’

Sunday provided Wright a moment to put it to use. As the Patriots clung to a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter, Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick zipped a pass to Josh Reed on fourth and 8. Safety Brandon Meriweather bounced off the receiver as Reed caught the ball at the sticks, and Reed bolted up field.

As Meriweather missed him again, Reed weaved toward the end zone. Wright had been sprinting toward the play - “you never know when somebody is going to miss a tackle,’’ he said. When Reed reached the 12, 29 yards past the line of scrimmage, Wright caught him from behind and dragged him to the ground. Four plays later, the Bills turned the ball over on downs.

“I think it lets the rest of the team know, not just me, that when guys are hustling like we did, you’re selling out on every play,’’ Wright said. “If you’re going to take a guy out, you’re not thinking about missing him. You know that guy is going to be right there, so you’re not worried about mistakes. You’re just out there playing.’’

His performance showed why the Patriots signed Wright to a four-year contract extension this spring. Wright had proved his value as a backup and special teams player; he was a member of the wedge last year. He felt validated by the contract, but not secure.

Wright barely celebrated when he signed the deal. (“I’m not an extravagant kind of guy,’’ he said. “I didn’t buy anything new. I’m sure I went out to a nice dinner with my wife.’’) And he did not change his approach.

“It was great to get that,’’ Wright said. “It was a huge accomplishment for me. But it doesn’t end there. You still got to make the team. You still got to make your presence known and be productive and keep your spot on the team. Because that extension means absolutely nothing if you don’t produce.

“It made me feel good at the time, but I knew that was out the door as soon as we stepped on the field. It’s not about what you did in the past. It’s about what you’re doing now. Everybody knows that around here.’’

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