James Sanders had hit the books so hard they hit him back.
Upon arriving in Green Bay with teammates Saturday, the second-year Patriots safety immersed himself in the team's playbook, continuing preparations for his third career start. By Sunday morning, he was still studying the plan, putting the finishing touches on what had been an intense week.
Then he reached the point where he simply had to stop.
"It was almost overwhelming, almost too much studying," Sanders said yesterday. "I sort of stopped and said to myself, 'You've been playing this game since you were 9.' I felt like I knew what I had to do, and it was just a matter of going out and playing football."
Sanders came through in that regard, playing from start to finish in the Patriots' convincing 35-0 victory over the Packers. He made two tackles in a performance he described as "nothing spectacular," although fellow starting safety Artrell Hawkins had a different view.
Given that the Patriots were without safeties Rodney Harrison (shoulder) and Eugene Wilson (hamstring), as well as cornerback Asante Samuel (knee), it was imperative that someone emerge in the secondary.
"I think James played well, he answered the bell," said Hawkins, who paired with Sanders at safety while Chad Scott and Ellis Hobbs started at cornerback. "He's a guy who studies hard, and it paid off for him. Just speaking with him and practicing with him through the week, I knew he was going to play well. I'm really proud of him."
The performance was a confidence booster for Sanders, a 2005 fourth-round pick who described his brief NFL career as an up-and-down journey to this point.
Sanders's most extreme dip came in the third game of this season, a 17-7 loss to the Broncos when he was called upon in an emergency role, first to replace Harrison, then to spell Wilson.
On his first play that night, Sanders was called for pass interference in one-on-one coverage against tight end Tony Scheffler, a call that the NFL officiating department later acknowledged shouldn't have been made. The Broncos went right back at Sanders the next play, but the pass fell incomplete. In the fourth quarter, Sanders was playing in the Cover-2 scheme and overran receiver Javon Walker on a go route, allowing Walker to score on an 83-yard play.
All in all, it was a day the 23-year-old Sanders would like to forget, although it taught him a lesson: You make plays or you suffer the consequences.
"At the time, I messed up, and there is no bigger critic on you but yourself," he said. "The one thing I did since is go out every day before and after practice with [assistant coach] Otis [Smith] and worked extra -- on my drops, breaking on the ball, going up and catching the ball.
"That's something I'm always going to do, the extra things, anything to make me a better player. I know I have a long way to go."
After that performance against the Broncos, Sanders didn't play much defense for five straight games, with the majority of his time coming on special teams. As the Patriots shuffled their deck because of injuries, Sanders was bumped up the defensive depth chart Nov. 12 against the Jets, playing in the nickel package, before graduating to the starting ranks Sunday.
"James was hard on himself after that Denver loss, but I told him he was too good of a player not to have another opportunity, and there it was a few weeks later," Hawkins said. "As a veteran player, I was there at one time. You're kind of searching for your place in this league. You're sort of out there in the wilderness and you can't really see what guys outside looking in can see."
What Hawkins sees is tremendous promise.
"I think he can be a great player," Hawkins said. "He has the size and he has the attitude, a really good attitude. He has the 1-2 -- he wants to study, he wants to do well."
The 5-foot-10-inch, 210-pound Sanders had been pulled aside by defensive coordinator Dean Pees early last week and told that he'd have a chance to start against the Packers. The kicker was that he had to have a good week of practice and master the game plan.
The Patriots called on Sanders and Hawkins to consistently provide double-team coverage on Packers receiver Donald Driver, who entered the game with an NFL-high 56 catches and added only two Sunday. Sanders felt his job was made easier because of the linemen and linebackers in front of him.
"The way the front seven played, we didn't have to do too much in the run game," Sanders said. "After the first couple of series in the game, we were able to concentrate on the pass and sat back and were trying to prevent big plays."
Leading up to the game, Sanders said several teammates took the time to tutor him, a group that included Harrison, Hawkins, Scott, and outside linebacker Rosevelt Colvin.
"They all told me, 'This is your chance, this is your time, so make the best of your opportunity,' " Sanders recalled. "The whole week I practiced real hard, and it translated onto the football field."