Patriots preview: The secondary

Dick Roche

It may have been a blessing in disguise for the New England Patriots that Asante Samuel wasn't in camp until the final week of the preseason.

This year, the Patriots stockpiled a group of defensive backs while bringing in a quality No. 1 draft choice to help build up depth.

Even without Samuel, the defensive backs have looked good in the preseason. Ellis Hobbs returns as a starter while Randall Gay, free agent signee Tory James, along with draft choice Brandon Meriweather, seem to make it a solid unit. The loss of Chad Scott to injury and Samuel not there Samuel's absence left the door open for a healthy Gay.

"That really hurt me because Chad is such a good person and such a hard worker, one of the biggest competitors on the team," said Gay of his friend. "To see him go down on a play where he was untouched and (knowing) he was really looking forward to this season, it's tough on us. As a DB group, we're together so much; we're with each other a lot more than we are with our families, so it's like we are a family."

Gay has been in the same situation the past two years, each time not finishing the season. Hobbs has been developing each of his two years in the NFL.

"We all know that individually we have to get better in order to make the team better," said Hobbs. "Guys are going to get injured, it's just part of the game. The main focus for everybody is to know each position and to know what you are going to do out there when you're your time comes because we expect nothing less when one man goes down and another one comes in. The communication must still be flawless. If we don't have the communications out there, that's when the bad plays happen. It's not just the starters, but everybody else that goes out there also.

"At the end of the day, that is the bottom line. Did the team get better? But we also say that in order for the team to get better, the individual has to get better. So we all have to work on the finer points of our games to understand that because I'm part of this defense in the whole, if my part isn't right, the team isn't right."

With the return from season-ending injuries of Eugene Wilson and Rodney Harrison (who will sit out the first four games due to a suspension) at safety and the emergence of James Sanders, the coaching staff is confident in the trio.

"It is important because they really control their respective sides of the secondary and they have to communicate with the linebackers on coverage and formation adjustments and that kind of thing," said coach Bill Belichick. "They're both smart guys. They work hard. They've both been in the system now for several years and they work well together - not perfectly, they have things they have to work on and things that we can do better there - but overall I think they work well together and they communicate well back in the secondary. They have to, because it goes out to the corners and the corners have to get it from them and the linebackers and safeties have to be tied in together on run force and coverage adjustments and stuff like that. Those guys do a good job.

"James is another guy who has really improved there as well. He got quite a bit of playing time last year when Rodney was out. That was one part of his game that really improved significantly over the course of the season. Really, I think we're at the point now where whichever two of those three are in there together, all of the communication is pretty good.

"I would say last year was a very defining year for James as a professional football player. There were times earlier in the year where things didn't go as well for him as I'm sure he would have liked for them to go. The way he bounced back was to work harder, to prepare harder, to try to be more attentive on the practice field and really to try to correct the mistakes that he made.

"We've talked about that before with other players, guys like Kevin Faulk and people like that, where those guys make a mistake and you correct them on it, they're obsessed with getting that straightened out and it not happening again. I give James a lot of credit. For a young guy, really he stepped up. He addressed some things that he had trouble with. He improved them significantly and really by the end of the year they were strengths, not weaknesses."