Having fielded one too many questions about the play of rookie cornerback Ellis Hobbs in last week's win in Miami, Patriots coach Bill Belichick tried to tone down some of the enthusiasm the media had shown for the 5-foot-9 Iowa State product.
"Let's not start to get a bronze statue ready," Belichick cautioned.
True, Hobbs isn't heading to Canton, Ohio (site of the Pro Football Hall of Fame) or to Honolulu (site of the Pro Bowl) just yet. But in a dark time for the Patriots secondary, Hobbs has provided a tiny glimmer of light heading into the final seven games of the season - a stretch run that begins with Sunday's visit from the 2-7 New Orleans Saints.
Six of the 10 defensive backs who were on the roster for the Patriots' opening-night win over Oakland back in September are now on injured reserve. Keeping Hobbs off that list would seem to be a key the rest of the way because he showed some toughness and some playmaking ability in a 23-16 win over the Dolphins.
Both of those qualities have been in short supply this season in New England's defensive backfield.
The Patriots defended the pass brilliantly in winning the last two Super Bowls, holding opponents to a combined 29 touchdown passes while recording 49 interceptions. This season, opposing quarterbacks have 18 TDs and four interceptions. The Patriots (5-4) rank 31st in passing yards allowed and have surrendered at least one 100-yard receiver in eight of their nine games.
Enter Hobbs, who made his first career start last week and responded with his first fumble recovery (which blunted a Miami scoring chance) and his first interception (which set up a fourth-quarter field goal). He was part of a revamped secondary that also featured first-time starter Michael Stone, a fifth-year veteran who was signed on Sept. 28, at strong safety.
"They both had a good week of practice, and I think for the most part that carried over into the game," Belichick said of the pair. "They played physically. I thought they got in on a lot of tackles (15 combined, eight by Hobbs), were running around hitting some people."
In the previous week's home loss to the Colts on "Monday Night Football," the Patriots' defensive backs - particularly corners Asante Samuel and Duane Starks - played far off the line of scrimmage and still were unable to keep up with receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. Outside the locker room, the word "soft" was used a lot to describe their performance.
Miami's Chris Chambers and Marty Booker caused their own problems last week, but there was a happy ending to this one because Hobbs muscled up when the situation demanded it. The Dolphins threw back-to-back fade passes against him in the end zone in the final minute of regulation. He batted away the first one while hand-fighting with Booker and had good position on the second one, which was intended for Chambers.
On both passes, Hobbs and the receivers were looking straight into the setting sun.
"You couldn't see the detail" of the ball, Hobbs said. "You just saw this big black thing coming at you so you just put your hands up there."
The Patriots will need more clutch plays like that if they want to get their pass defense turned around. Losing cornerback Randall Gay, who went on IR this week with a chronic ankle injury, leaves them with just seven true defensive backs, although receiver Troy Brown played corner in sub packages last week for the first time this season, and linebacker Don Davis remains on call as an emergency safety.
The Patriots' defensive success the rest of the way likely will hinge on whether the new faces in the secondary - Hobbs, Stone, cornerback Hank Poteat (signed on Oct. 19) and cornerback Artrell Hawkins (signed this week to take Gay's roster spot) - can make the most of their newfound playing time.
"The thing that I tried to focus on (earlier in the season) was preparation," Hobbs said after the Dolphins game. "When opportunity meets preparation, then something like today can happen."
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