FOXBOROUGH — The first two-plus months of the season were not easy for Kyle Arrington.
Coming off a breakout year in which he tied for the NFL lead in interceptions with seven — the fruition of years spent scrapping for a job, scrapping for a roster spot, scrapping for a prominent role on defense — Arrington wanted to get even better.
The affable Patriots cornerback, who is sporting some admittedly unruly facial hair (“fear the beard,” he said Wednesday) started the first 10 games at right corner. But after giving up completions of 50 and 24 yards (for a touchdown) on the same drive while covering Seattle’s Doug Baldwin, Arrington found himself pulled in favor of rookie Alfonzo Dennard.
The acquisition of Aqib Talib from Tampa Bay Nov. 1 made a couple of things possible for the secondary: New England was able to move Devin McCourty back to safety for the rest of the season, and Arrington was able to bump inside to nickel corner, or the “star,” as the Patriots call it.
If the early returns are any indication, it is a more natural position for the 5-foot-10-inch Hofstra product.
In his first game playing primarily at the star, Arrington did not give up a reception and had two pass breakups against the Colts Nov. 18.
Against the Dolphins last Sunday, Arrington’s primary duty was on Davone Bess, a slot receiver who has had some impressive games against New England.
In his first game against the Patriots as a rookie in 2008, Bess had just one catch for 4 yards. In his next seven games against them, Bess averaged almost six receptions and 75 yards, with four touchdowns. That included a 10-reception, 117-yard, one-TD performance in Miami’s 22-21 win in December 2009.
After the AFC East-clinching win in South Florida last Sunday, McCourty gave credit to Arrington for making sure Bess didn’t do any damage in the game: He recorded just one 13-yard catch, though quarterback Ryan Tannehill targeted Bess six times.
Coming into the game, Bess and Brian Hartline were tied for the Miami team lead for receptions with 55 each; Hartline had five catches against New England.
“He’s one of the best receivers we see in the slot,” Bill Belichick said of Bess. “I thought Kyle played well; really had a solid game in terms of coverage, tackling, made a play on the blitz.”
Arrington and Jerod Mayo each had six tackles, tying for the team lead in the game. Arrington also recorded a quarterback hit on the blitz Belichick referenced.
“Overall defensively, I thought we, for the most part, did a fairly solid job,” said Belichick. “Kyle certainly held up his end of it and did a good job in all phases of the game, not just coverage — run force, opportunities he had to rush. It was solid.”
But Arrington did not want to take special credit for holding Bess at bay.
“Within the team, the whole scheme of things I think everybody did a nice job,” he said. “Some instances where he was doubled, you had to know where your help was, what leverage to keep. And a lot of other times, one-on-one situations, film study came into play and I just thought we did a great job, as a team.”
Belichick spoke about the difference between slot receiver and outside receiver, and said playing inside is “a different world” because there are more defensive players to worry about in the middle of the field, and that visual communication between a quarterback and slot receiver is more difficult; in essence, there are just more variables to deal with.
If receivers in the slot need a different set of skills, it stands to reason that nickel corners do as well.
“There’s so many different kinds of receivers you can see in the slot, versatile receivers,” said Arrington. “They can be short/quick, they can be big/strong, so a lot goes into game-planning. You just have to understand the game plan and try to execute it the best way you can.
“You really have to use your advantage, what you have. We try to play to our strengths on the defensive side of the ball.”
Perhaps it’s because he’s not playing as many snaps or he’s more comfortable at his new position, but Arrington’s performance in recent weeks is visibly improved.
True to form, however, he says he just wants to be on the field.
“My skills, I think they’re wherever the team needs them to be and wherever coaches feel I need to be,” Arrington said. “Ultimately it’s the coaches’ decision, if they have confidence to put me in that position, I have even more confidence in myself.”