It wasn't that long ago that there appeared to be a battle for the No. 1 cornerback job in New England. Back on opening day 2006, Bill Belichick gave the plum assignment of covering Buffalo's Lee Evans one-on-one to Ellis Hobbs. The brash young corner did a terrific job during the Patriots' 19-17 victory over the Bills, holding the dangerous wideout to just three catches.
It was understandable if people read into the decision and felt the second-year corner out of Iowa State had perhaps slipped past Asante Samuel in Belichick's mind, but almost two full seasons later no one harbors any of those feelings.
While Samuel has blossomed into a play-making machine with 18 interceptions -- including six thus far in 2007 -- since then, Hobbs has struggled through injuries and inconsistency and has at times been picked on by opposing quarterbacks. Now in his third season, Hobbs remains as confident as ever.
Admittedly, on a team that's 14-0 coming off Sunday's 20-10 win over the Jets and has clinched home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, looking for a weak link might be a bit of an exercise in negativity. But, as the cliche goes, a team is theoretically only as strong as its weakest link.
"When you see it from an outside perspective, that's how you're going to see it," Hobbs said flatly. "You don't know what's going on in there. All you see is me in the end zone or you see me on TV and the ball is being caught right there, not knowing that I might be trying to save some other guy's tail of whatever."
One play Hobbs might be referring to is the Steelers' 32-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Najeh Davenport during the Patriots' 34-13 victory over Pittsburgh two weeks ago. Roethlisberger deftly avoided Mike Wright with a sidestep to his left, and the Patriots secondary did not react well. Davenport, a fullback who wouldn't normally be a corner's responsibility, ran a wheel route down the left sideline but continued into the end zone when his quarterback bought the extra time.
He ran past linebacker Adalius Thomas and Hobbs was the only other player in the vicinity. Roethlisberger's pass landed softly in Davenport's hands while Hobbs desperately tried to break the play up. But while it might be true that Hobbs wasn't necessarily responsible for the touchdown, it didn't appear that he reacted well to the ball.
Either way, Hobbs remains undaunted. When asked if he has heard the criticisms from people that have referred to him as the team's weakest link, and that the way to beat the Patriots is by throwing on Hobbs, the corner would have none of it.
"This is a profession. This is the NFL," said Hobbs, who has yet to record an interception but has 10 passes defensed this season. "In saying that, the coaches are professionals also. We take our jobs very seriously. They wouldn't have me on the field if I wasn't doing my job. We wouldn't be 13-0 (heading into the Jets game) if I wasn't doing my job. So, how can you talk about a weak link in something that strong?"
Whether or not Hobbs' play has been subpar may be open to interpretation, but what has been clear is the opponents' willingness to take their chances in his direction rather than Samuel's. That's understandable given the amount of huge plays Samuel has given the Patriots, and frankly Hobbs hasn't turned in the kind of game-changers his partner has.
Hobbs talked enthusiastically about his increased knowledge of the team's schemes and improved technique that has allowed him to improve, even if the stats don't show it. Playing much of 2006 with a broken bone in his wrist made it difficult for him to get jams in at the line. Now, he no longer is prohibited from using such measures.
"Obviously, the season is not over, but I think just as far as me understanding everything, playing, making plays and things, I think we're headed in the right direction, moving forward," Hobbs said. "The interceptions and everything will come. Just doing my job and going above and beyond that, not only on defense, but on special teams as well, I think it's headed in the right direction as far as my best season personally."