The bond between University of Miami (Fla.) football alumni is famously tight. It's a fraternity all its own in many ways.
Even players who weren't teammates -- who are generations apart, in some cases -- are able to form close friendships in short order, based simply on their shared alma mater. "The U," as the Hurricanes' program is known to many, proves so alluring that many players who advance to the NFL choose to return to the Coral Gables campus offseason after offseason to work out.
It is during such sessions that the elders typically forge ties with younger players. Take Ed Reed and Brandon Meriweather, for example. Reed was well on his way to establishing himself as an All-Pro, future Hall of Fame safety with the Baltimore Ravens when Meriweather arrived at Miami. But the two have not only struck up a close friendship since, they've also begun drawing more frequent comparisons to one another.
Entering his fourth NFL season on the heels of his first Pro Bowl appearance (as an alternate in 2009), Meriweather demurs when the subject comes up.
"To be honest, I don't think (we are) very similar at all," he insisted. "Ed Reed is a guy who's a roamer. I think I'm better at doing a couple different things than Ed. I think Ed's best game is when he's in the middle of the field and he can just sit back there and do what he wants to do.
"My best game is when I'm closer to the box and able to do what I want to do. So it's a lot different between me and Ed, but I think things we do similar are ... reading and reacting, our instincts. His are second to none. And I feel like mine aren't too far behind that. Other than that, I think our games are not too similar."
He may be right, but Meriweather doesn't deny that he has taken full advantage of his "U" connection with Reed to try to improve his own game. Reed's best advice: turn off the lights, turn on the projector.
Meriweather explained that, at Reed's behest, he often spends days, even weeks, breaking down individual games, particularly losses, to analyze what he did wrong and how to prevent it from recurring. Take the Patriots' game with the Saints last November, for instance. Not one of New England's finer moments in '09, nor Meriweather's. A blown coverage in the Meriweather-led secondary produced one of the most memorable big plays the defense allowed last year Devery Henderson's 75-yard touchdown jaunt in a 38-17 New Orleans romp on Monday Night Football.
"It's more important to look at a loss," Meriweather said. "In a win, everything went well, everything you were coached to do, nine times out of 10, you did it. We could do that every day in practice. I want to watch a game where the communication wasn't that good and the focus wasn't there. I want to watch games like that where we got mentally tired and we let some things up. I don't want to watch the games where we led teams 25-0 at halftime.
"I'm going to see what the Saints did so good and what we did so bad that made Drew Brees throw for 400 yards. I'm going to see the things that we did and hopefully what I find on that, I can go back and tell Jonathan (Wilhite), Darius (Butler), Leigh (Bodden) and all (the other defensive backs) what I saw on the tape that we need to improve on."
One area in particular where Meriweather admits he could stand to improve is tackling. Poor technique plagued him and the Patriots secondary last season, resulting in numerous missed tackles that resulted in big gains by opposing offenses.
However, Meriweather followed up his guilty plea with a somewhat quizzical defense, suggesting that quantity is more important than quality when it comes to bringing down ballcarriers.
"I think with tackles, it all comes (down) to hustle. If everybody's running to the ball, you could miss 10 tackles and they still won't get too many yards.
"You know, the best defenses in the league," he continued, "I think the first guy didn't make the tackle. Barely ever made the tackle, should I say. It's always the pursuit. Whenever you have a lot of guys running to the ball, you're going to have a good defense, no matter what."
As a rookie in 2007, Meriweather had a disturbing propensity for dropping would-be interceptions. Over the past two years, however, he's shown a marked improvement in that area. In 2009, his five picks were tied (with cornerback Leigh Bodden) for tops on the Patriots defense.
Perhaps as a result of that success, Meriweather felt comfortable doing something uncharacteristic of Patriots players. He revealed that one of his specific personal goals this year is to lead the AFC in interceptions. If he accomplishes that feat, and shows as dramatic an improvement in tackling as he has in interceptions, the comparisons to Ed Reed will continue to grow.
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