The question is now vexed; can the 2007 Patriots secondary match or beat that performance? With standout cornerback Asante Samuel finally gracing the Patriots with his presence at camp this week, the secondary could be one of the best in the league again in 2007.
The secondary was also able to have great success in 2006 without safeties Rodney Harrison and Eugene Wilson for much of the year, with journeyman safeties Artrell Hawkins and Chad Scott and the inexperienced James Sanders and Willie Andrews picking up much of the slack.
The major question marks will be at safety as Hawkins was recently cut from the squad and Scott is done for the season after being placed on Injured Reserve (IR) due to a knee injury. Although Harrison has been all over the field this preseason and appears to be in midseason form, he still turns 35 this year and is coming off back-to-back knee injuries.
If Harrison can stay healthy, he is the only player in NFL history to record at least 25 sacks and at least 30 interceptions, entering 2007 with 28.5 sacks and 32 picks. He also makes everyone around him better. Eugene Wilson, who may still be nursing a hamstring injury this preseason, also played his best when playing safety next to Harrison.
The good news at safety is the stellar play of rookie safety Brandon Meriweather this preseason. Harrison's influence may be rubbing off on the first round pick. In three preseason games, the 5-foot-11, 200 pound Meriweather has 12 tackles (10 solo), including leading the Patriots with five solo tackles in their 24-7 victory over Carolina last Friday. Veterans Mel Mitchell and Rashad Baker are rounding out the Pats safety position.
During training camp, Harrison said the secondary looks to be aggressive on defense. "We always preach turnovers," said Harrison. "Anytime you get the ball as a defense, that's your main goal. That's something you want to be. You want to be a physical, aggressive, ball-hocking type defense and the great defenses in the National Football League, the Baltimore's, the Chicago Bears, you know they are always up there in turnovers and always up there in tackles made."
Turnovers are what Samuel delivered last season to earn him the franchise tag from the Patriots in the off season. He tied for the NFL lead with 10 interceptions in 2006, achieving the second highest total in Patriots history for a single season (Ron Hall had 11 picks in 1964 for the Boston Patriots). Samuel also set a career high with three interceptions in one game against Chicago last season and has returned three interceptions for touchdowns, including two during last postseason, tying an NFL record.
Samuel rejoins an already stellar group of cornerbacks. In two NFL seasons, Hobbs started 17 of 31 games while totaling 88 tackles (68 solo), five interceptions, for 87 yards, 18 passes defended and three fumble recoveries. He shined in the AFC Championship game against the Colts matched up with pro bowl receiver Reggie Wayne. He saved a potential touchdown with a diving breakup of a deep Peyton Manning pass intended for Wayne in the end zone in the first quarter. Unfortunately he was wrongly called for face guarding in the second half of the game after he broke up a pass in the end zone, but was later vindicated when he received a note from the NFL letting him know the officials made a mistake.
The one player flying under the radar at cornerback is fourth year player Randall Gay. He's been the forgotten man the last few years because injuries have kept the cornerback from being on the field the last two years, but now he's healthy. All in all, he's been good when he's been on the field in his career.
After signing as an undrafted rookie in 2004, Gay went on to start nine of 15 games as a rookie after pro bowl cornerback Ty Law went down with a season ending foot injury. He finished the year with two picks and went on to start three playoff games for the Pats, which included leading the Pats with 11 solo tackles in Super Bowl XXXIX. During the Patriots' 24-21 victory over the Eagles in the Super Bowl, he also batted down a pass intended for Todd Pinkston in the first quarter and forced L.J. Smith to fumble the ball recovered by the Pats in the first quarter. Look for Gay to add tremendous depth at the position if he can stay on the field.
With a healthy Gay, coupled with Hobbs and Samuel, the Patriots may potentially have the toughest cornerback trio to throw on this season. Free agent signings Tory James, Eddie Jackson, and Dante Wesley has seen limited and unimpressive action this preseason while rookie corners Mike Richardson and Larry Anam continue to battle for a roster spot.
The most important key to the future success of this group of defensive backs is of course head coach Bill Belichick. He will continue to coach sound fundamentals and proper technique. "There's no position on the field where technique and position and the little things are more important than in the secondary," "In the secondary, you have to cover a guy for two, three, four seconds. You have to be in position and read the release and read the route and break on the ball and use proper technique to make the play on the ball or make the tackle." Belichick said during last post season.
But if all else fails, Belichick can always use his go-to guy, old "Mr. Reliable," receiver and part-time defensive back Troy Brown, who has three career interceptions.
Materials from Scout.com articles and wire reports were used in this story.
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