FOXBOROUGH - When Rodney Harrison was carted off the field at Gillette Stadium after suffering a torn right quadriceps Monday night, the Patriots' 15-year veteran strong safety gave an appreciative wave to the sellout crowd, but not before he shot a glance and pointed a finger at his defensive teammates.
Harrison's unspoken message was unmistakable: "It's on you now."
It certainly seemed to resonate for free safety James Sanders, Harrison's running mate in the Patriots' secondary.
"He was just pointing at everybody," Sanders said yesterday. "He's the first one to say when a guy goes down everybody has to step up and raise their level of play and the team's got to keep moving forward. He's a great guy and we're going to miss him, but the season goes on.
"I know no team out there is feeling sorry for us, so we've got to go out there and be ready to play."
That will be the case tomorrow when the Patriots line up without Harrison against the St. Louis Rams, who opened the season 0-4 under former coach Scott Linehan but have caught a spark under interim coach Jim Haslett by winning back-to-back games against the Washington Redskins (19-17) and Dallas Cowboys (34-14).
At no time did Sanders, a fourth-year veteran out of Fresno State, place an inordinate amount of pressure on himself to fill the void left by Harrison's season-ending injury.
"We just all got to do our jobs," he said. "No one can replace Rodney. We just got to go out there and play hard and lead by example, and that's when we're out there each and every day in practice, playing 100 miles per hour, and getting ready for the games on Sunday."
This is not a new experience for Sanders, who stepped in two years ago when Harrison went down with a broken scapula against the Colts. Sanders started five of the six games Harrison missed, making an interception for 21 yards against Houston.
Harrison returned in the regular-season finale against Tennessee only to suffer a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee when he was laid low by a cut block from receiver Bobby Wade. Sanders entered the fray in the postseason and started all three games, making 17 total tackles (12 solo), including a sack for 10 yards.
Last year, Sanders settled into the free safety spot opposite Harrison and established career highs in tackles (73), solos (60), interceptions (2), passes defensed (5), and special teams tackles (5) while making a career-high 15 starts.
He will enter the St. Louis game as the team's No. 5 tackler with 25 (17 solo).
"James has come a long way as a player," coach Bill Belichick said. "He improved as a rookie [in 2005], but I think he dramatically improved after his second year after the Denver game in his communication and his understanding of the passing game.
"I think when he came into the league, he was a real good special teams player, real good physical player, real good tackler, real good in the running game. I think he has really developed in the passing game - coverages, techniques, understand[ing] coverages, how to organize the coverages in the secondary."
When did the Patriots defensive scheme become second nature to him?
"I'm not sure," Sanders said. "This is a very complex scheme and it takes time to go out there and play extremely confident in this scheme, because we have so many moving parts. But from time to time, you still find yourself not certain about certain things. But, for the most part, I've got a lot of things about the defense down pat and I just know now that I am playing defense with confidence and playing as if I've been in this system for 10 years."
Sanders knew his comfort level was really a byproduct of getting to absorb every piece of advice, every bit of knowledge Harrison had to offer.
"On the field, he's helped me in so many ways I can't even describe," Sanders said. "He's just helped me overall to step my game up to another level. Each year, he's helped me to become a better player. I've been doing that going into each and every week and I've tried to work hard and have a veteran attitude and try to lead in the secondary."
Which explains why Sanders has taken second-year safety Brandon Meriweather under his wing much the way Harrison took Sanders under his. Both recorded interceptions against Denver's Jay Cutler Monday. Meriweather's was his team-leading third of the season; Sanders's was his first.
"Me and Brandon are real close, on and off the field," Sanders said. "We're real tight, so when we go out there, it's a lot of fun. When we go out there, we know how each other plays and we know how to play off each other, so it's going to be fun to see what happens when we're both out there together on Sunday."
Although Harrison won't be there to guide him, Sanders will attempt to make this game day just like any other. The big difference is that Harrison's injury could be career-ending, which led to a soul-searching late-night phone conversation between Sanders and Harrison after the Denver game.
"It got real emotional," Sanders said. "We play a violent sport and, unfortunately, things like that happen."
Asked if Harrison got emotional as well, Sanders replied, "Yeah, we both talked about a lot of things, not just football, but life in general. He said we got to continue to work hard and that he's going to continue to check on us and that he expects big things out of us because after last week, he knows what we're capable of doing, so we've got to build on that and move on."