Shaun Ellis: New England Patriots Veteran Starting to Pay Dividends

Drew BonifantAnalyst IIJanuary 20, 2012

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 14:  Shaun Ellis #94 of the New England Patriots sackes Tim Tebow #15 of the Denver Broncos during their AFC Divisional Playoff Game at Gillette Stadium on January 14, 2012 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

The date was a little more than a year ago. Ask Tom Brady, he remembers.

Shaun Ellis was the best player on the Gillette Stadium field the night of Jan. 16, 2011. That was when the New York Jets landed a shocking divisional round upset over the top-seeded New England Patriots, with Ellis leading the way. The veteran lineman consistently harassed Brady, landing two sacks, and was the leader in Gang Green's disruption of the Patriots' vaunted offense.

Almost a year later, 363 days to be exact, Ellis was at it again. He was breaking through the offensive line, attacking the pocket, driving quarterbacks into the Foxborough turf.

This time, Brady was happy. Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow was the one getting hit. And Brady was the one seeing that, in January, it's a lot better to have Ellis on your side than against you.

It's been roughly five months since Ellis defected from the Jets to the archrival Patriots. Five inconsistent, up-and-down, often frustrating months. The 34-year-old defensive end was brought in to be a crucial ingredient, a player equally adept at getting to the quarterback as stuffing the running back, a perfect compliment to a line with space-consuming tackles Vince Wilfork and Albert Haynesworth.

The plan never really got off the ground. Ellis began the year in the starting lineup but began to see his snaps dip. He appeared old and slow, and saw his playing time go to quicker, more versatile defenders like Andre Carter and Mark Anderson.

One year after recording 36 tackles and 4.5 sacks, Ellis was a non-factor. He went into Week 16 with only 11 tackles. No sacks. No forced fumbles. No presence, no impact, no production.

Ellis was buried on the depth chart. He has admitted it wasn't easy. But Ellis was brought in to be a professional. In that area, he could still deliver.

"It's been challenging," Ellis said, according to the Boston Globe. "It's been a little difficult, but just hanging in there, just trying to lend my hand when I can. When my number is called, I just go out there and play.

"In the end, I'm a pro. So I just go about my business as usual. Once that time comes, I'm ready for it."

In Week 16, Ellis finally got in the stat column, sacking Miami's Matt Moore in a 27-24 victory. But just like last year, it wasn't until the playoffs started that he unveiled his best football.

In the 45-10 victory over Denver, Ellis was part of an awesome defensive line that tackled Broncos ball-carriers for a loss 14 times. He generated push from his left end spot, allowing for teammates like Wilfork, Rob Ninkovich and Brandon Spikes to crash into the pocket.

He recorded his second sack in one of the night's most impressive defensive plays. Ellis burst right through the line off the snap, nearly sacking Tebow instantly, only to come up empty when Tebow spun away. Undeterred, Ellis got up and pursued the elusive quarterback, getting rewarded for his efforts when he drilled Tebow seconds later for a five-yard loss.

The crowd roared. Ellis danced toward the Patriots sideline, his performance drawing the cheers, rather than just coinciding with them.

It was the playoffs and, once again, Ellis had come to play.

The sack was Ellis' only tackle on the night, but his effort, so clear on that play, was what the whole Patriots defense was about. Even if you're out of the play, you keep fighting. You keep working. Be a pro, all the way through.

This is the Ellis the Patriots were looking for. He's not playing 70 snaps, but he is playing more than he was. The player who didn't get on the field for a single snap against Kansas City in November logged 27 against the Broncos. Bill Belichick trusts the veteran more, just in time for the biggest games of the year.

Ellis had a right to be feeling low during the season. But he stayed with the program. His attitude was balanced. Now that his playing time has gone up, he's not about to change his tune.

"Just waiting my turn, just continuing to get better," he said after the playoff victory. "When my number is called, I just go out there and play."

Spoken like a true professional.