Case in point: Earlier in the week, the media was asking wide receiver Matthew Slater about Julian Edelman's transition from wideout to cornerback, and Slater waxed poetic about his teammate's work ethic. But Slater admitted after Sunday's 31-24 victory against the Colts, he was laughing on the inside during that previous conversation because he had a secret of his own to keep.
At that time, Slater knew he was preparing to play safety for the first time since the 2009 preseason, and oddly enough, that's where he got his first career start Sunday against Indianapolis.
He's hardly alone. Nick McDonald, an offensive tackle at Grand Valley State, made his NFL debut Sunday, becoming the fourth member of the Patriots to start at center in 12 games this season. McDonald didn't know he would start until offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia gave him the news Saturday.
Defensive back Nate Jones, who signed with the Patriots on Thursday after being a free agent for nearly two full months, started at safety with just two practices under his belt. And Niko Koutouvides, a special teamer, started at linebacker for the first time in seven years.
"We have that next-man-up attitude," linebacker Jerod Mayo said. "Guys have done an excellent job filling in, being attentive at meetings and when they've come out on the field, they've done a great job."
The run of unpredictable promotions started in Week 10 against the Jets when undrafted rookie linebacker Jeff Tarpinian made his first career start, and cornerback Sterling Moore also made his debut at safety after one full week of preparation at the position.
Tracy White, a special teamer like Koutouvides, also earned a large chunk of playing time at linebacker in recent weeks. Wide receiver Tiquan Underwood, another street free agent, has taken snaps from Chad Ochocinco in the last two weeks, and Underwood's emergence likely played a role in Saturday's surprising release of 2010 third-round pick Taylor Price.
This stuff has gone on in New England for the better part of Bill Belichick's 12-year tenure — most famously with Troy Brown and Stephen Neal — but it has happened much more frequently over the last month.
"Bill knows best," said safety James Ihedigo, who has become a starter this season after spending four years as a special teamer with the Jets. "That's kind of the motto here. He knows what he wants to do in terms of getting guys reps and getting guys in the secondary more depth at the position and getting guys the opportunity to play. It's all in the best interest of our team and the best interest of the defense."
But consider two other players, too.
Linebacker Rob Ninkovich, whose key sack on third-and-goal helped set the tempo for the Patriots' defense in the first quarter of Sunday's victory, was a long snapper with the Saints before they released him prior to training camp in 2009.
And cornerback Kyle Arrington was another special teamer who vaulted up the depth chart last season, and he forced his eighth turnover of the season Sunday when he recovered a fumble in the third quarter (the fumble was forced by Slater).
It's kept everyone in the locker room on their toes because the game plan has been so different from a week-to-week basis. There's a chance the positional schizophrenia could settle down once some key players return from injuries, such as safety Patrick Chung, linebackers Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher, and center Dan Connolly, but at the very least, the experience everyone has gained will help later in the season in emergency situations.
It might also keep the players anxious as they start a new week of work.
"I don't see myself going on offense any time soon," Ninkovich said, "but it obviously shows the variety of different things that we can do with the personnel on this team."
Naturally, everyone can now wonder if Ninkovich will be the Patriots' goal-line running back against the Redskins. That's how things are going in New England these days.
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