FOXBORO — It was almost exactly one year to the day. That’s how long Derek Rivers had to wait between games.
They were NFL preseason games, but for him, that was close enough to the real thing. Under the lights. On the Gillette Stadium turf. It didn’t matter that the outcomes didn’t matter. He was just happy to be back. And not just back, but starting.
“It was a blessing,” he said after the Patriots beat the Redskins on Thursday night. “It’s a surreal moment.”
Rivers tore his ACL last summer during a practice against the Texans at The Greenbrier, twisting awkwardly in a kick-return period and crumpling to the turf. He was soon on a flight back to Boston, hoping his knee brace had saved him but understanding the news might be bad.
He ended up missing his entire rookie season, robbing the Patriots of one of their promising young pass-rushers.
The preseason opener on Thursday night was his opportunity to show just how far he’d come since his injury, and he flashed the ability that made him a third-round pick out of Youngstown State. Wearing no brace on either knee — though he wears braces in practice because the team asks him to — he finished the game with three tackles and one quarterback hit. His 31 snaps were the most for any Patriots defensive lineman.
“Not even thinking about it,” Rivers said of his knee. “I was so excited to be out there, and it was just a blessing to be back out here with these guys to be out here and be playing. It was awesome.”
Rivers made the first tackle of the game, hustling down the line of scrimmage to make the play from behind when Dont’a Hightower set a solid edge on the opposite side. He was used as a hand-in-the-dirt defensive end as well as a stand-up outside linebacker, and he handled multiple roles. He rushed the passer, played the run, and even had one snap in coverage.
His quarterback hit resulted in a personal foul penalty, which Rivers said afterward was explained to him as a violation of a new rule. Among the rules changes this season, there is new protection for quarterbacks, protecting them from having defensive players land on them with all or most of their body weight.
Rivers’ hit was clean, but he was told he landed on quarterback Kevin Hogan with too much force. Asked if he felt the penalty was warranted, Rivers smiled.
“It really doesn’t matter how I feel about it,” he said. “It’s something that they threw and I just gotta work on it for next time . . .
“I put my body weight on him after the hit. It’s just something that we have to be aware of next time. Our coaches do a great job of going over all the new rules and all the things that are going around. They do a great job keeping us up on it.
“Just something you gotta practice when you get there, you get in on him, and you roll off. Just something I gotta be more aware of in practice. It’s a heightened awareness, that’s all.”
For a player who was seeing his first action in a year, a player whose knee held up without issue, it’s a call he’d live with. He was simply happy to be back out and contributing after a long layoff.
“Praise God. To God be the glory,” he said. “Felt good. Felt awesome. It was good to be back out there with the team. It was fun.”