FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — Not being in the limelight has never bothered Kyle Van Noy.
He didn't start a NFL game until his third season when he was with the Detroit Lions, and even then was thought of as a role player.
So now being considered one of the leaders on a Patriots defense that is on the cusp of making a return trip to the Super Bowl seems somewhat out of place for the fourth-year linebacker as he heads into Sunday's AFC championship game against Jacksonville.
"I've been in so many situations since I've been here," Van Noy said of the increased role he's had in New England.
"I mean going deep in the playoffs last year and then playing all of the games this year. ... Each and every game there's different situations, different scenarios that come up. So I would say that my awareness has gone up a lot since I've been here."
The same could be said about his value.
When linebacker Dont'a Hightower went down with a season-ending torn pectoral muscle in the Patriots' win over the Falcons in Week 7, it left a void in the side of a defense that entered 2017 young and inexperienced up front.
New England had already given up 30 or more points three times to that point and was ranked 23rd in the NFL in scoring defense, allowing 23.7 points per game.
Van Noy began the season starting at outside linebacker alongside Elandon Roberts in the middle and Hightower at the other outside spot.
But when Hightower went down, the coaching staff asked Van Noy to handle multiple roles, playing both on the edge and middle of the field at times.
Safety and defensive captain Devin McCourty said that the 26-year-old showed glimpses of that versatility even last season.
It's why it wasn't strange for him to see Van Noy tackle the responsibility of receiving the defensive play call from the sideline, another role that he's inherited with Hightower out.
He flourished in them all, and over the final nine weeks of the season New England got stingier on defense.
By the end of the season it was allowing just 18.5 points per game — the fifth-best mark in the league.
Van Noy missed three of the final four games with a calf injury, but still finished the regular season third on the team with 73 tackles and second with 5½ sacks. Van Noy's sack total was just a half-sack short of Hightower's career-high of six in 2014.
"It helps our defense out a lot, and he's one of a lot of guys on our defense that have been able to play different positions that allow us to do different things defensively," McCourty said. "He's been a leader, he's run the huddle kind of since he's been in there."
Coach Bill Belichick said continuity and execution has improved all over the defense, with lots of contributions from Van Noy and others such as Trey Flowers, Marquis Flowers, Adam Butler, Deatrich Wise Jr. and Ricky Jean Francois.
"Some of the guys that are playing now weren't playing. If we had had this conversation in the middle of the season, you wouldn't be asking about them," Belichick said.
"They've stepped into different roles and they've worked together more, gotten a better feel for each other, execution's better, so it's good."
Van Noy said any success he's had is simply a product of his environment.Comment on this story
"There are a lot of superstar defensive players that aren't even talked about," he said. "When I was with the Detroit Lions there was a guy named DeAndre Levy who never made a Pro Bowl, but who everybody knew, if you played football, who he was. There are situations like that all the time. And there's teams that have really good defenses that aren't talked about. We're one of them."
NOTES: The Patriots placed defensive back and special teamer Jonathan Jones on injured reserve. They also announced the signing of receiver Bernard Reedy. Reedy was a member of the Patriots' practice squad.
Follow Kyle Hightower at http://www.twitter.com/khightower