FOXBORO, Mass. — Brandon McGowan brought a little more bang. Brandon Meriweather and Patrick Chung had that young sizzle. So, somewhere along the line in early 2009, James Sanders — the quiet, always-steady veteran — lost his way on the depth chart.
Sanders had very little playing time at the start of the season, yielding his starting job to McGowan and sharing the reserve duties with Chung. Sanders said it was tough to sit on the sidelines, especially with the amount of reps he had in previous seasons. To make it more difficult, he was also inactive in Weeks 5-6 with a shoulder injury.
“With everything negative, you’ve got to try to find something positive out of it,” Sanders said on Tuesday. “What helped me is it made me mentally strong. There was a point where I wasn’t really playing at all, but I had to have a good attitude coming in and working hard each and every day because you never know when your opportunity is going to come. During that long stretch, if I just went in the tank, or didn’t work hard, or didn’t study, when that opportunity came again, I might not have been ready to take advantage of my opportunity like I did last year coming into the last four games.”
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick made some changes after New England’s tough Week 13 loss in Miami, and Sanders reclaimed his starting job alongside Meriweather. Sanders had 23 tackles (19 solo) and three pass defenses over the last four weeks of the regular season — more than doubling his production from the rest of the season — and he made nine stops (eight solo) during the Patriots’ playoff defeat against Baltimore.
Sanders’ heady, reliable play sparked New England’s defense in the final month, as he was more familiar with the calls and reads — a duty that is extremely important for the safeties in Belichick’s system. Many in the locker room, including Belichick, noted how much smarter and more disciplined the defense played after Sanders rejoined the starting lineup.
The four safeties are back again in 2010, reigniting the battle for depth-chart position. Sanders wasn’t sure how things would shake out, but he was asked on Tuesday if he was surprised he was still on the roster.
“To be honest, I don’t know what to think,” said Sanders, who was the Patriots’ fourth-round pick out of Fresno State in 2005. “I’m here. Being here, I’m going to give it all I’ve got each and every day, prepare myself as much as possible for the upcoming year, and just try to go out, and compete to the best of my abilities and basically just try to win a spot on the team. Obviously, I’m not the type of guy who wants to sit on the sideline and watch the team, but at the same time, I’m not going to do anything to hurt the team. The only thing I can do now is to continue to work as hard as possible, and hopefully get that opportunity to go back on the field and produce like I know I can produce.”
Meriweather is a lock to start at one spot, and Sanders’ strong play in December should give him the early advantage for now. Chung, who showed promise in three-safety sets, might warrant more playing time in his second season, too.
The four of them are close off the field, and Meriweather even sent a first-class ticket to Sanders so he could fly from California to Miami for the Pro Bowl in February. While the competition will be fierce, it will also be friendly. At the end of the day, the quartet will give the Patriots plenty of options on defense.
“You could argue that [it’s the deepest group of safeties in the NFL],” Sanders said. “I feel like we have four capable starters, and it’s going to be interesting what kind of packages [the Patriots use]. Bill is real good at creating different packages, what kind of packages he’s going to create with our depth and our versatility. It’s going to be interesting to see. It’s probably the deepest group we’ve had since I’ve been here, even when Rodney [Harrison] was here. We have some capable players. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens.”