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SUPER BOWL Pats' secondary plan works



Published: Wed, January 26, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



New England has shut down opponents despite injuries to defensive backs.

FOXBORO, Mass. (AP) -- The New England Patriots will try to stop Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb with a patchwork secondary that includes a rookie free agent, a converted wide receiver and a guy who was signed off the street before the playoffs started.

And no one doubts that they can do it -- not any more.

After shutting down NFL MVP Peyton Manning and offensive rookie of the year Ben Roethlisberger in consecutive playoff games, the Patriots no longer have to worry whether the subs in the secondary are ready to face McNabb in the Super Bowl.

"I think they have answered all of the questions of just guys stepping in there and making big plays for them," McNabb said. "It says a lot about their scheme, it says a lot about their coaching staff."

Secondary shuffle

The Patriots began having problems in their secondary when starting right cornerback Tyrone Poole was injured in Week 3. Left cornerback Ty Law, a four-time Pro Bowl selection, went out four games later, and it's been one sub after another ever since.

They signed Earthwind Moreland off the practice squad, and he started two games. Eugene Wilson moved up from free safety before he went back to his regular position. Don Davis and Dexter Reid were tried out at safety in order to make the shuffling work.

"The list went on," McNabb said.

Coach Bill Belichick finally found some stability at cornerback with Randall Gay, an undrafted rookie free agent who was converted from safety and didn't make his first start until midseason, and Asante Samuel, who also started the season as a sub. Wilson is back at free safety alongside strong safety Rodney Harrison -- the only defensive back to start every game at the same position.

Hank Poteat, who was out of football and taking classes at the University of Pittsburgh, and receiver Troy Brown help out when more defensive backs are needed. Brown's two-way play was derided as a gimmick until he grabbed three interceptions in a five-game span.

"I think we have a lot of better players than we get recognized for," Wilson said after collecting two of the Patriots' three interceptions in the AFC title game. "There's a whole bunch of great guys. We don't really focus on individuals, we play as a team."

Playoff perfection

Such was the defensive backfield the Patriots put on the field in the divisional playoff round against Manning, who had the best season ever for an NFL quarterback. They helped hold the Colts to three points, then intercepted Roethlisberger three times in the conference championship, picking him off on his first pass and again on Harrison's 87-yard return for a score that essentially iced the game.

One of the more remarkable things about the Patriots' consecutive trips to the Super Bowl is that they've done it despite a rash of injuries that are supposed to be devastating in the salary-cap era. Last year, the problems were mostly on the offensive line, where only one player started every game at the same position and three of the Super Bowl starters had very little experience.

"Last year, we had a lot of injury problems, too, and we overcame that," Wilson said. "I don't see why this year would be any different."




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