by Christopher Price
First impressions can be misleading.
For James Sanders, his introduction to most Patriots fans came on the night of Nov. 5, 2006. The defensive back, who had been taken by New England in the fourth round of the 2005 draft out of Fresno State, had occasionally popped up on the radar screens of area football fans over the first year and a half of his pro career, but it was mostly as a special teamer. He was mostly a blank slate — Sanders had just 19 tackles and one interception as a rookie. At most, he was seen as not much more than a potential backup for Eugene Wilson, who had only missed four games to that point in his career and was considered to have a solid hold on the safety spot, while veteran Rodney Harrison was entrenched at the other safety position.
But that night, with Wilson out and Harrison suddenly sidelined because of a first-quarter injury, the 5-foor-10, 210-pound Sanders was forced into action. Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning immediately zeroed in on the relatively green defensive back, who struggled in coverage much of game as the Colts took home a 27-20 win.
As first impressions go, it wasn’t much. However, that game marked a turning point for Sanders and Wilson: Since then, Sanders has clearly improved in all phases, and has played his way into the starters’ role. He hasn’t missed a game since that evening, and has done everything possible to wrest the position away from Wilson, who has played in just seven games since that night.
According to Head Coach Bill Belichick, that game was the approximate point where Sanders went from spare part to invaluable contributor.
“I think the biggest jump for him came last year between about the middle of the season to the end of the season,” Belichick said, reflecting on the last year and a half of growth for the Fresno State product. “I think he came on last year and played … had a very good roughly second half of the year, including in the playoffs, both in the running game and the passing game [and] continued to help us on special teams.
“This year, I think he pretty much picked up right where he left off at the end of last year,” Belichick added. “He has consistently been out there. He works hard. He gets better every day and he’s been on the field every day, so that enables him to take those meetings and that coaching and performing on the practice field and carry it over into the game.”
He’s been on the field every day. It’s something you can’t say about Wilson, who looked like an All-World defensive back as a rookie in 2003. He started 35 of his first 38 games in New England, and was named to ESPN.com’s All-Rookie Team. But the Illinois product has struggled with ankle and hamstring injuries since. Meanwhile, Sanders has steadily progressed through the system, gaining more and more playing time. With Harrison sidelined because of suspension for the first four games of the 2007 season, Sanders started at strong safety, but since Harrison returned — and Wilson has continued to struggle with injury — he’s seen the bulk of the time at free safety.
Sunday night, Sanders took another giant step forward. He led the team with four tackles, creeping up to the line several times to deliver big hits. Highlights included a crushing blow on Buffalo’s Anthony Thomas that resulted in an early three-yard loss, as well as a big hit on Bills’ running back Dwayne Wright that jarred the ball loose, resulting in a fumble that was returned by Ellis Hobbs 35 yards for the final touchdown of the night.
But more importantly than grasping the physical aspect, Sanders has clearly mastered the mental aspect of playing defensive back in the Belichick system.
“He understands the defense, he understands our adjustments and how the defense has to shift based on what the offense does before the snap,” Belichick said of Sanders, who has 45 tackles this season. “That’s part of a safety’s job, to make those adjustments and communicate those to the corners or in some cases the linebackers.”
“That’s an important part of his job, and he does it well,” added the head coach. “He’s very good at it and he works hard at it. He’s one of the hardest working players on the team, and we have a lot of them, and he’s up there.”
FIVE THINGS TO LOOK FOR THIS WEEK
1. “Spygate” fallout. The Eagles were one of the most quotable teams in the wake of the Patriots’ videotaping scandal, with several players telling the media — many of who were joking and many of who were ultra-serious — exactly what they thought of New England, and not all of it was positive. It’ll be interesting to see how much of it will be used as bulletin-board material by the Patriots, and how much will be discussed in the postgame Q-and-A’s.
2. Do the Patriots prepare for starting quarterback Donovan McNabb or backup A.J. Feeley? In what’s become as much a Philadelphia tradition as cheese steaks and the Mummers’ Parade, McNabb suffered his annual November injury last Sunday. This time, it was an ankle and thumb that slowed him Sunday against the Dolphins. His status remains a colossal question mark, and even trying to read between the lines via injury reports will be useless, because Philadelphia Head Coach Andy Reid told the media Monday that McNabb doesn’t need to practice this week to start against New England.
3. How the Patriots go about trying to stop Brian Westbrook. Philly’s do-everything running back — at his best, a Marshall Faulk clone — is the sparkplug for their offense. The 5-foot-10, 203-pound Westbrook had a career-best 148 yards rushing against Miami on Sunday, and is the fifth-best rusher in the league entering last night with 849 ground yards. In addition, he already has 518 receiving yards, tied for a career-best season output. (He’s been hobbled lately by knee and abdominal injuries, but is likely to play Sunday night.) If New England can contain Westbrook, they can significantly slow down the Eagles’ offense.
4. If Mike Vrabel can do something that hasn’t been done since 1995. Remarkably, no New England player has registered double-digits in sacks in a season since Willie McGinest finished the 1995 season with 11. (Since then, McGinest got to 9 1/2 twice and Vrabel got 9 1/2 once.) Vrabel enters Sunday’s game against the Eagles with 9 1/2 sacks. He’s a pretty good bet to reach double-digits Sunday night, especially against a Philadelphia offensive line that has allowed 32 sacks this season, 28th-worst in the league as of last night.
5. Randy Moss. Just as he demands constant attention on the field, his week-to-week performance within the context of the New England offense also makes him impossible to ignore. Moss continues his campaign to be the first wide receiver in the history of the league to win MVP honors, entering Sunday’s game against the Eagles with 66 catches for 1,052 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns. In the three occasions he’s faced the Philly defense, the Eagles have managed to hold him under 100 yards receiving each time — his best day against Philadelphia came in 2001 at the Vet, when he caught seven passes for 95 yards and a touchdown in a 48-17 loss to the Eagles.
STAT OF THE WEEK
22. The Patriots are a whopping 22-point favorite against the Eagles if Philadelphia starts A.J. Feeley at quarterback Sunday night, according to Las Vegas Sports Consultants senior oddsmaker Mike Seba. Seba said the Patriots would open at -18 if Donovan McNabb is behind center.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“I saw the real 81. I think he had like 170 yards and four touchdowns. Yeah, I saw the real 81. But I don’t really get into that. I have a job to do, and that’s to go out and block and catch balls. To try to go out there and try to duplicate or do something better than a receiver did on Sunday is not my game, and I don’t want to do that.” — Patriots wide receiver Randy Moss on whether or not he saw Terrell Owens finish with four TDs earlier in the day against the Redskins.
Christopher Price is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the Patriots since 2001 for Boston Metro. He’s served a contributor to ESPN.com, SI.com, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post and The Miami Herald. He’s written “The Blueprint: How the New England Patriots Beat the System to Create the Last Great NFL Superpower,” and can be reached at email@example.com.