Patriots: Hobbs Is Stepping Up
Last season, cornerback Ellis Hobbs made his first NFL start against the Miami Dolphins in a game the reeling Patriots had to win. The young corner made an immediate impact by recording eight tackles, four passes defensed, two fumble recoveries and an interception.
Trailing 23-16 in the final minute, Miami needed a touchdown to tie the game and they went right after the Patriots rookie cornerback. The Dolphins tried to hit Marty Booker and Chris Chambers on back-to-back fade routes on first and second down. Both times they threw Hobbs' way and both times he was in perfect position, causing two incompletions. The Patriots held on for the victory that helped propel them to another AFC East title.
Hobbs would go on to start the rest of the season at cornerback for the Patriots. While he had his ups and downs, the rookie's confidence grew every week. Hobbs ended up finishing the year tied for the team lead with three interceptions.
"You have to be confident when you are out on the football field," Hobbs said. "If you don't have the confidence within yourself that you can play with anybody, then you're in the wrong line of work. When you have confidence, your instincts take over and that's what this game is all about, instincts. If you don't have confidence, you can't play. Period."
Hobbs' strong finish to the 2005 season caused a lot of excitement around New England. Asante Samuel is a solid cornerback but the Patriots haven't had a true shutdown corner since 2003 - Ty Law's last full season with the Patriots. The third-round draft pick out of Iowa State may not be in Law's class just yet, although coach Bill Belichick has begun using him in a similar role.
In 2005, Hobbs played on the right side of the defensive formation and would cover whichever receiver lined up against him. However, in the season opener against Buffalo, the second-year corner was asked to shadow Lee Evans - the Bills' best receiver - much like Law used to do when he was playing cornerback for the Patriots. Hobbs limited the explosive Evans to just two receptions for 25 yards. His performance was so impressive that he received congratulations from his head coach after the game.
"Whenever you have your coach say that you did a great job, it makes you feel good," Hobbs said. "For the coaches to give me that kind of responsibility, it shows they have a lot of faith in me." Never lacking in confidence, Hobbs loves the challenge of shutting down the other team's best receiver and admits he was excited when Belichick told him what his role would be against the Bills.
"I was a little surprised, but at the same time, this is what I've been waiting for," Hobbs said. "A cornerback worth anything wants that kind of challenge, where you're on their top guy all day. Personally, I love the challenge because it lets me know that I can be that guy. When you get a call to do something like that, you take some self pride because the coaches are asking a lot of you and putting a lot of trust in your abilities." After last Sunday's game, Evans acknowledged that Hobbs had gotten the better of him that day.
"He was in there banging me, driving me off my routes, frustrating me a bit," he said. "He did a good job rerouting me all day long." Hobbs and the Patriots secondary will face a tougher test this Sunday against the Jets. Last week against the Titans, Jets quarterback Chad Pennington threw for 319 yards, with 153 of them going to his top receiver, Laveranues Coles. Hobbs has spent most of the week breaking down film on Coles.
"With his speed, he has a great burst down the field," Hobbs said. "He can go the distance, has great hands and great ability after the catch, too. He works hard all the time. His motor never stops."
It will be up to Hobbs and the rest of the defensive backs to keep the Jets receivers under wraps and not give up any big plays through the air. However, when asked if he would shadow Coles this week the same way he did Evans, the usually talkative Hobbs suddenly became tight-lipped, answering the question in a manner reminiscent of his head coach. "I'm not giving none of that away. Next question," he said.
Jets: Pennington Must Focus
Since guiding the Jets to a 30-17 Sunday night victory over New England on Dec. 22, 2002, Chad Pennington is winless in three starts against the Patriots. In that span, he has thrown seven interceptions and only one touchdown pass. Still, he's not concerned about those statistics.
"I don't think I've played them enough for them to have my number," Pennington said of the Patriots. "They have been successful against us. The past for us doesn't really matter. If the past mattered, we wouldn't have been able to pull out that win on the road, judging by our record the past 10 road games. All we control is the here and now."
Pennington obviously got the memo from coach Eric Mangini, who also pointed out that "each week is totally different. I think the number was 10 road losses until Tennessee, and really, that didn't make any difference. ... What matters is how well we prepare this week, how well we practice and how well we execute, and understanding our opponent and that's what's important. Everything else is really just history."
Well, just as the 23-16 opening-day win at Tennessee erased a 10-game losing streak on the road, the Jets will be hoping to rewrite history against the Patriots, whom they haven't beaten since Pennington's first start back in Dec. 2002.
And while the defensive coordinators have changed, the defensive mastermind at the top remains.
"He has such a great football mind," Pennington said of New England coach Bill Belichick, whom he called a "future Hall of Famer. They've got a lot of future Hall of Famers on that team. They're a good sound football team. Sometimes you can get caught up in the things they could do (with schemes), but one thing you can count on is that they play good fundamental football." Which is what the Jets played for the most part against the Titans, except for Mike Nugent's kicking woes and Pennington's lost fumble at his own 1-yard-line. They probably won't be able to afford such miscues against New England.
"What we have to focus on right now this week is our execution and the fundamentals," Pennington added. "If there's anything coach (Mangini) has really stressed to us, it's that execution is the bottom line. The past few years they have been really good at out-executing their opponents."