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Priority: Secondary

Sept. 01, 2008
Sept. 01, 2008

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Sept. 1, 2008

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Priority: Secondary

The blame for New England's Super Bowl collapse fell heavily on the defensive backs. The result: a major rebuild

ROBERT KRAFT stood on a practice field next to Gillette Stadium, watching his players file past after a day of training camp. Several wore gray T-shirts fronted with the message: HUMBLE PIE 2007. A lesson from last season? Motivation for 2008? "I don't think it's a chip on their shoulders," said the Patriots' owner. "I just think they believe they're good."

This is an article from the Sept. 1, 2008 issue

But how good? That depends largely on the team's response to its stunning Super Bowl defeat seven months ago. If the lasting image of New England's 2007 title run is a football held snug against Giants receiver David Tyree's helmet, the death knell for the club's perfect season was less spectacular: New York wideout Plaxico Burress, isolated on cornerback Ellis Hobbs late in the fourth quarter, juking to the inside, busting back outside and easily cradling Eli Manning's winning touchdown pass. The last line of the defense had crumbled, and the Patriots' secondary was soon undergoing a significant overhaul.

New England let three key contributors go in free agency—corners Asante Samuel and Randall Gay and corner-safety Eugene Wilson—and signed four players on the open market: corners Fernando Bryant (Detroit), Lewis Sanders (Atlanta) and Jason Webster (Buffalo), and safety Tank Williams (Minnesota). When Williams went on injured reserve in mid-August with a knee injury, the Pats brought in former Bucs and Broncos safety John Lynch. Among their draft picks in April were cornerbacks Terrence Wheatley (second round, Colorado) and Jonathan Wilhite (fourth round, Auburn).

The two rookies roomed together in camp, the better to digest a defense that asks a lot of a player. After practice, Wheatley says, their conversations often went like this: "How close was I to [stopping Randy Moss]? Not that close? Do your legs hurt as much as mine?"

Learning the Patriots' system, and the Patriot Way, takes time and concentration. "The breaking-in process is slow," says safety Rodney Harrison, 35, who's entering his sixth season with the club. "You get here, you learn, you make mistakes, you watch them on film, you get better, you ask questions, you shut up sometimes and listen. The two young corners work extremely hard."

And they'd better learn to rely on each other. Asked if he can help bring the new DBs along, veteran linebacker Tedy Bruschi says, "A little bit. [But] I can't turn around in the middle of a play and tell them what to do. That's their area back there, and they are going to have to get the job done."

Coach Bill Belichick's most important off-season acquisition won't play a down: Dom Capers, the former coach of expansion Carolina and Houston, was hired to oversee the secondary. "He has a wealth of experience and a great background in a lot of areas—[3--4] defense, younger players, older players," says Belichick.

With Hobbs coming off surgeries for a hernia and for a torn labrum in his left shoulder, Belichick and Capers have had to shore up the cornerback position and determine which of the newcomers can produce in nickel and in dime situations. But where outsiders see a potential weakness, the Patriots staff sees a unit that draws strength from its competitiveness. Bryant, who began his career at Jacksonville with Capers as his defensive coordinator, is a ball hawk with experience. Another big contributor could be Brandon Meriweather, the 2007 first-round pick, who has lined up at corner and safety and who doesn't lack confidence. Says Harrison, "I have to tell him to shut up because he was trying to tell me how to do my job."

"The breaking-in process is slow," Harrison says. "You make mistakes, you watch film, you get better."
PHOTODAVID BERGMANSTEP FORWARD The versatile and confident Meriweather (31) is among those who'll get more work.