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Over the past few seasons, no group of players in the New England organization has been subject to as much criticism as the Patriots’ defensive backfield. Heading into 2011 however, this group finally appears to have a firm foundation of talent and experience that has plagued the back end of the Pats’ defense since their Super Bowl runs.
Belichick has instilled trusted assistant Matt Patricia as safeties coach to continue the retooling of the secondary. Patricia has overseen the development of Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Jermaine Cunningham and Rob Ninkovich over the past five seasons as linebackers’ coach, so his presence in the secondary is a welcome one.
At free safety is University of Miami product Brandon Meriweather, who returns for his fifth campaign in Foxboro. Meriweather has morphed into one of the premiere safeties in the NFL, earning a trip the Pro Bowl the last two seasons while recording eight interceptions during that period. Meriweather also brings a much needed physical presence to the back end of the defense, as evidenced by this hit on Todd Heap last season. Despite his up-and-down play and occasional mental lapses, Meriweather remains the face of the Patriots’ secondary.
Opposite Meriweather is third year safety Patrick Chung. The 34th pick in the 2009 Draft, Chung started 13 games last season, emerging as an every down player. The Oregon alumnus ranked second on the squad with 67 solo tackles while simultaneously turning into a special teams’ ace. Chung’s development in his third season will be vital to the success of the Patriots’ secondary.
As backups Sergio Brown, James Sanders and Brandon McGowan are expected to contribute in special team. Brown returns for his second season for the Pats, and reports from training camp indicate that he has been a major contributor on special teams.
Sanders is regarded as one of the leaders of the defense, and despite his age, had his best season in 2010. A seventh-year player from Fresno State, Sanders’ play was vital in wins over the Steelers and Colts last year and will provide a veteran presence for this young unit.
Despite missing all of 2010, Brandon McGowan expects to be the Patriots’ fifth safety. McGowan started 11 games in 2009, registering 50 solo tackles and three forced fumbles, but was placed on injured reserve prior to the start of last year.