Monday's huge victory over the Denver Broncos did not come without a major price.
Just hours after learning they'd be without running back Laurence Maroney for the rest of the year, the Patriots also lost safety Rodney Harrison for the season when the 15-year veteran tore a quadriceps muscle in the second half.
To fill the void, the Patriots will turn to second-year safety Brandon Meriweather, who leads the team with three interceptions and is finally living up to expectations after being selected as a first-round draft pick in 2007.
"I thought that he came on towards the end of last year and that is really where I think his increased level of production and high performance started," head coach Bill Belichick said Wednesday. "He had a good camp in the spring and I thought he got off to a good start in training camp and in the preseason games. He has played well. I think his game at the end of last year was improving at a good rate and he has picked right up on that this year."
This would have been a much more serious problem last year since Meriweather lacked the experience and pedigree on defense, but he has played a lot in 2007 and has made the most of his opportunities. Now he and James Sanders will have to fill the leadership void left by Harrison's third major injury in four years.
|James Sanders will get Harrison's role? |
(Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
"We have really had three safeties playing the entire year -- James, Brandon Meriweather and Rodney Harrison," Belichick said. "I am sure that the two of them will have to play more but I don't think they will be doing anything they haven't been doing."
For Meriweather, this is the chance to prove the Patriots made the right move drafting him in '07. Groomed to be a potential replacement for Harrison, this could be the former Miami Hurricane's first real audition. Assuming Harrison retires, which may very well be the case, Meriweather's performance could affect what the Patriots do in terms of personnel decisions during the offseason.
Expect to see Meriweather playing deep in pass coverage while Sanders fills Harrison's role near the line of scrimmage. Why? Meriweather is clearly the better ball-hawk among the two as evident by his improved hands this year, which have led to three picks. Also, Sanders is a superior tackler (he has saved several touchdowns this season with big takedowns in the secondary) and would be more beneficial to the Patriots using his speed and savvy to cut off plays near the line of scrimmage.
The only question is whether Sanders' tackling abilities will be negated by playing so close to the line. However, the benefit of having Meriweather playing deep should limit the number of big plays. While the cornerbacks take most of the heat for those meltdowns, Sanders has made mistakes on those plays too, so it appears to be in New England's best interests to move him close to the line.
"I think we'll have to count on a lot of people to do some of the things that Rodney did," Belichick said. "Rodney had a lot of different roles for us defensively, so I'm sure there won't be any one person that will do what he did. We'll have to combine and use a number of people."
The other issue is depth -- or lack thereof. Having Meriweather as a sub-defender gave the Patriots a number of options. Now their third safety is Antwain Spann. Will the Patriots be able to run the same exotic nickel and dime packages they've run in the past if Spann is their only other safety option off the bench? The injury to Harrison may limit some of the things Belichick and his coaching staff want to do.
"It's tough, but it's something we are familiar with as players," cornerback Ellis Hobbs said. "It's just part of the game. He would say the same thing about anybody else. We're not going to sit here and have a pity party or anything. We enjoyed the service with us. Like I said, he's a loyal and dedicated player to the game. The way he played the game is really how all of us should play it -- 100 percent all the way."
Though Harrison has missed time in the past, the initial shock of losing such a valuable player will take time for the Patriots to get over. As long as they do so in time for Sunday's game against the St. Louis Rams, they should be well-equipped to move forward.
"I think it's certainly a big blow," fellow defensive captain Mike Vrabel said. "I think that what he brings weekly and every day to this locker room and this team it'll be missed. You can't certainly replace it. You can't go out and find someone. There's nobody out there like that. Obviously everybody sees what he does in the games. It's just what he does in practice and the way he prepares and the way he works and pushes guys."
SERIES HISTORY: 10th regular-season meeting. Rams lead, 5-4, not including the Patriots' 20-17 victory over St. Louis in Super Bowl XXXVI at the Superdome. Prior to their victory in 2004 at the Edward Jones Dome, the Patriots had not beaten the Rams in a regular-season game since 1986. At the old Schaefer/Sullivan/Foxboro Stadium, the Patriots were 1-3 against St. Louis. This will be the Rams' first visit to Gillette Stadium since its opening in 2002.
--This upcoming game could be similar to the last meeting between these two teams in 2004 in that the Patriots are coming off the loss of a key player with S Rodney Harrison's injury.
That year, they played without Ty Law and Tyrone Poole in the secondary, yet still sacked Marc Bulger five times en route to a 40-22 win. The Patriots also relied on a bit of trickery with kicker Adam Vinatieri throwing a 4-yard touchdown pass to Troy Brown on a fake field goal.
Gillette Not Friendly For Visitors
--Few teams have fared well at Gillette since the stadium opened six years ago -- particularly first-time visitors. The last seven teams to make their Gillette debut have lost, including the Redskins and Eagles in 2007. The last first-time visitor to win was the San Diego Chargers in 2005. They cruised to a 41-17 victory.
Overall, first-time visitors are 4-23 at Gillette. Arizona will make its Gillette debut in December, followed by Atlanta and Carolina in 2009.
This Is Not Your Father's Team Anymore
--Sunday should be a special day for Patriots rookie safety Matthew Slater, who will get to play against the team that employed his father, Hall of Fame offensive lineman Jackie Slater, for 20 years.
The elder Slater played his entire career with the Rams and is one of 14 members of the team's Ring of Fame. Ironically, another son of a Hall of Famer will be at Gillette on Sunday -- Rams defensive end Chris Long, who is the son of Howie Long. Slater and Long are two of seven sons of Pro Football Hall of Famers to be drafted in the NFL.
Found: One Diamond In The Rough
--Undrafted rookie linebacker Gary Guyton has made an impact on defense in recent weeks as the Patriots continue to work with a number of different personnel groupings in their front seven.
Guyton, a rookie free agent from Georgia Tech, recovered a fumble in the second half of New England's win over Denver and played 31 of the Broncos' 60 offensive snaps.
"Everybody should expect that of themselves to be ready because you never know just in case something might happen," Guyton said. "You can't make that call. All you can do is make plays when you're out there."
The Kid Is Smart, Just The Way We Like Them
--Count fullback Heath Evans among those impressed with rookie running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who ran for 65 yards in the second half of Monday's win after Sammy Morris left the game with a knee injury.
"From Day 1, you saw a bit of the smarts about him that you don't see with all your younger players," Evans said. "Running back is probably one of the easiest positions to make a transition in from college to the professional level, but there's still a studious act that needs to come with you to make that transition even smoother.
"His quietness at times can almost be perceived as him not paying attention, but when you ask the kid questions he knows what's expected of him, he knows his protections and he knows the things as an eight-year vet I've learned to pick up over the years."
Cassel Not Half Bad
--Quarterback Matt Cassel won the AFC Offensive Player of the Week Award for his 18-for-24 performance with three touchdown passes in Monday's victory.
Cassel threw for 185 yards in his first career start on Monday Night Football and recorded a league-high 136.3 passer rating in Week 8 despite being sacked six times.
Belichick Prepares Iron To Deal With Wrinkles
--Always ready to match wits with opposing coaches, Bill Belichick is prepared to see some new looks from the Rams now that Jim Haslett has taken over for Scott Linehan.
Haslett coached St. Louis to victories in each of the past two weeks and has made some minor changes to the schemes Linehan used to run during his unsuccessful tenure.
"There are little things," Belichick said. "It's hard to tell how much of it is game plan and how much of it is a fundamental change that will take course over the long haul. They're a little bit of a scheme team anyway. They change their schemes up from week to week depending on what you are doing.
"I would say the big thing is the last two weeks they have played fundamentally sound."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think if you have Reggie White, you play him." -- Coach Bill Belichick, when asked to discuss his rotations on defense.
Hot Topic: Brady's Injury Career Threatening