The New England Patriots needed help on defense so they added three experienced players at midseason.
Turns out they’re also solid students.
Linebackers Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas and defensive tackle Alan Branch dove into coach Bill Belichick’s complex playbook then produced on the field.
“We’re putting guys into play, right into the mix,” Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis said Thursday. “I’m sure that can be a hassle coming from another team and then a whole new playbook is in front of you, but you’ve got to give credit to those guys.”
Now they can help the Patriots (10-3) clinch the AFC East title with a win or tie against the Miami Dolphins (7-6) on Sunday.
A season-ending right knee injury to defensive captain Jerod Mayo in the sixth game left the Patriots thin at linebacker. So they made two trades.
Before the eighth game, they obtained Ayers and a seventh-round pick in 2015 from Tennessee for a sixth-rounder that year. Before the ninth game, they got Casillas and a sixth-round pick in 2015 from Tampa Bay for their fifth-rounder that year.
Then on Oct. 29, one day after the Casillas deal, the Patriots signed Branch. He had been cut by Buffalo on Aug. 24, the day after he was arrested on a drunken-driving charge, but “the main factor was performance” in the decision to release him, Bills coach Doug Marrone said.
All three played less than a week after joining the Patriots.
Ayers, a second-round draft pick by Tennessee in 2011, started 43 of the 48 games he played in his first three seasons. But he was inactive for five of seven games with the Titans this year when they switched to a 3-4 scheme.
In his first game with the Patriots, just four days after the trade, he had a sack against Jay Cutler of Chicago. In the next game, he sacked Denver’s Peyton Manning. And last Sunday night, his fourth start with New England, he intercepted a pass by Philip Rivers in a 23-14 win at San Diego.
“Just being able to move around sometimes and just being able to do different things on defense, I really enjoy it,” Ayers said.
He’s getting more comfortable with the system but still has a lot to learn.
“I just try to narrow it down as much as I can,” he said. “I’m pretty much learning on the go and I understand I’m going to make mistakes out there and there are going to be a few things that aren’t perfect, but (I) just know that I can fix those mistakes and try not to make them twice.”
Both he and Casillas also have produced on special teams.
Casillas signed with New Orleans as an undrafted free agent in 2009 and started just eight games in three seasons with the Saints. He was a backup in Tampa Bay last season before starting three of his five games with the Buccaneers this season.
His approach to a different playbook is simple.
“It’s really no secret,” Casillas said. “If you care what you’re doing, you just have to put the extra time in. I’ve been putting in a little extra time with (linebackers coach) Pat Graham and even with Akeem.”
Branch was a second-round pick by Arizona in 2007 and started 13 games for Buffalo last year. But he didn’t attend any of the Bills’ voluntary spring practices this year then failed his conditioning in training camp.
“They definitely helped me out with the cardio program they have here (to) just make sure I’m able to compete with the other guys for longer than a couple of plays at a time,” he said. “I’m definitely appreciative of the chance they’ve given me.”
And he, Ayers and Casillas have given back.
“All three of those players have definitely helped us, both with their playing time, their performance and I’d say the rapid pace at which they’ve picked things up,” Belichick said.