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Patriots' Sanders in a familiar role

James Sanders's childhood has prepared the safety well for stepping into a leadership role. (BARRY CHIN/GLOBE STAFF)

FOXBOROUGH -- James Sanders never had to be much of a disciplinarian. He did, after all, hold the trump card: "I'm going to tell Mama on you."

That did the trick, generally, as the 10-year-old Sanders steered his four charges -- ranging from his baby brother to his 9-year-old sister -- through mornings and nights and weekends as his mother, Kathy Thompson, worked shift after shift after shift.

"It wasn't too tough because it's all I knew," Sanders said. "My mother went to work and she expected me to take charge and make sure everything got done. That was my job to do, I just needed to do what Mama said.

"You had to speak up because there's so many of them, but we tried to blend together, help each other out. The kids, my brothers and sisters, they were pretty good, they listened to their big brother when Mom wasn't home."

It's a situation that has garnered new meaning in his first two seasons in the NFL, especially this season. Stepping in as the starter alongside Artrell Hawkins with injuries to safeties Rodney Harrison and Eugene Wilson, Sanders said his sudden leadership role with the Patriots mirrors the one he took with his siblings.

Sanders, 23, has improved under the tutelage of the veteran Hawkins, with whom he spends an additional hour going over formations and situations before each game, in addition to the work the secondary does as a group. Getting snaps -- he's started the last four games -- has helped, too.

"When you first start playing, you're a bit nervous about making the wrong checks, and that might make you a half a step slower than you normally would be," Hawkins said. "The more you play, the faster you recognize formations, the faster you recognize offensive tendencies, and the faster you play. I think he's becoming a faster, more consistent player and that tentativeness week by week is dwindling."

Sanders agreed, saying, "I did experience that a little bit, especially being out there and you're sitting behind Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel. You tend to get a little hesitant when you know the call, but you're not 100 percent sure, so you don't want to yell out something wrong. But once you get back there and you start to get comfortable after your snaps increase, you tend to be more vocal back there."

Though his performance sagged, like almost everyone on the team, against Miami last Sunday, Sanders has been improving his tackling (3 against Green Bay, 7 against Chicago, 11 against Detroit, 3 against Miami, according to the coaches ) over his four-game starting streak. But, more importantly, he's been improving his confidence as he's gotten used to the position -- used to taking charge.

He's no longer studying too much and playing stiff, as he acknowledged he did against the Packers. Sanders has settled his nerves, adapted to having Bruschi and Vrabel in front of him. It wasn't easy, but it's something with which he already has a bit of experience.

"Being a safety, you've got to make a lot of calls out there for the defense in the secondary, so try to be vocal, show some leadership in making some confident calls out there to set the defense up in the right position so that we can make the plays," Sanders said.

More relaxed and ready to fit into the defense, Sanders acknowledges his faults. He might be improving, but he's far from where he needs to be, mentioning his deep-field drops and footwork as areas he needs to do better. That all fits into the reputation he has already developed in the locker room, according to his teammates and coach Bill Belichick.

"Nobody works harder than James does," Belichick said. "He's very dependable and studious. He spends a lot of time trying to study and get things right, be on top of the situation. He's improved on a weekly basis, almost on a daily basis, and every time he comes off the field, he is doing something better than he did the day before."

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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