A backfield in motion
Movable parts key to success
FOXBOROUGH -- He needed a long hit of mouthwash when the festivities at Gillette Stadium were over yesterday.
No, his first career start hadn't left a bitter taste of disappointment; rather, Dexter Reid -- like dozens of other Patriots and Ravens who had just slopped around in the mud for more than three hours -- had a foul taste of something else.
"I've got all this dirt in there," said Reid, a rookie out of North Carolina who was a central figure in the weekly smash hit, "Extreme Make-Over: The Patriots Defensive Backfield."
Devoid once again of starting corners Ty Law and Tyrone Poole and nickel back Asante Samuel, the Patriots relied on some good, old-fashioned schoolyard football by throwing together an assortment of players from different positions to come up with a defensive backfield that rose to the occasion. Though master architect Bill Belichick shrugged it off -- "We got a lot of good contributions today," he offered in a classic understatement -- a view of the Patriot sideline in the closing seconds of a 24-3 thrashing of Baltimore spoke volumes for where the credit rested. That's because none other than Tom Brady was front and center, high-fiving unheralded defenders Reid, Don Davis, Randall Gay, and yes, Troy Brown.
Indeed, the onetime All-Pro wide receiver/kick returner was again thrown into the thick of things in the defensive backfield, though on this day he wasn't the only one pitching in for extra duties. So, too, was Davis, a 10-year veteran linebacker who found himself getting plenty of playing time at safety, of all positons.
"I hadn't played safety since high school," said Davis, in his second year with the Patriots. There was a smile on his face, but gratitude in his heart, for he took this as a compliment.
"Guys are willing to do whatever it takes. It's a great team and I'm thankful to be a part of it. I just really appreciated the opportunity. I'm glad the coaches had the confidence in me. It's a great feeling," he said after his efforts had translated into two tackles and four assists and contributed to a performance that limited the Ravens to 124 total yards, 47 of them through the air.
The Patriots started the game with only one starting defensive back in his normal position -- Rodney Harrison at free safety. Eugene Wilson, normally a safety, was moved up to left cornerback while Reid got his first NFL start, at strong safety. Gay was at right cornerback.
OK, it's not how things had been drawn up those hot summer days, but this is the NFL, where things change in a hurry. True to the nature of their coach, the Patriots don't complain; they simply adjust and Davis spoke for all of his mates when he said, "I just play where they tell me. We prepare for everything."
For Reid, the chance to start meant a serious time for reflection and give him a gold star for turning to veteran Willie McGinest for guidance. The standout linebacker/defensive end told Reid to focus on the play and maintain his composure until the play was over. Then he could let loose.
"I'm an emotional guy, so I've got to try and hold my emotions," said Reid, a fourth-round pick who had played mostly on special teams before yesterday. "I've hurt the team with some ill-advised penalties. I had to try and control my emotions."
Consider it mission accomplished, for Reid held his own and wasn't at all a liability.
Nor was Gay, who made the game's first big defensive play, intercepting a Kyle Boller pass to stifle a Baltimore drive when the game was scoreless in the first quarter.
Nor was Davis, the soft-spoken veteran who is playing with his fourth NFL team. Never had he surveyed the field from such a vantage point, but he said it wasn't entirely different from playing linebacker. "It's about the same," he said. "You just get a wider perspective of the field."
The fact that Brown, who entered the league in 1993, and Davis, who was a rookie in 1996, contributed mightily at positions they are not truly trained for was hardly a surprise to observers, even those who are new to the rigors of the NFL.
"You're talking about two exceptional athletes there," said Reid. "We have the utmost confidence in those guys."
Answering questions in front of his locker, Davis explained that he had been a running back in high school, only to be switched to linebacker in college. A reporter interrupted and wondered aloud if the Patriots coaches were aware of his background as a running back and whether there would be duty there. Davis smiled.
"If they ask, then it's where I'm going to play," said Davis.
Nearby, Brown was asked if there were any other surprises coming up so far as defensive back candidates.
He, too, offered a smile.
"We'll go down the list, I guess, and find somebody if we need them."