When starting safety Rodney Harrison suffered a season-ending thigh injury Oct. 20 against the Denver Broncos, the question was if Brandon Meriweather could fill the void.
It turns out the 2007 first-round draft choice has filled it to the rim.
In a statistic that reflects how Meriweather has become a steadying presence in the Patriots' secondary, he hasn't just started all eight games since Harrison's injury, he has played every snap, a string of 493 plays (including penalties).
It has been a major jump for the 24-year-old Meriweather, who didn't start a regular-season game in his rookie campaign and earlier this season was the team's first defensive back off the bench.
His performance was lauded by coach Bill Belichick yesterday.
"He's certainly come a long way as a player in these two seasons and it just continues to get better," Belichick said. "He's a really dependable guy, smart, and makes very few errors back there in the secondary - not just himself but also in terms of his overall communication back there with the group. He's playing with a lot of confidence and I think we have a lot of confidence in him because of the way he's playing."
Coaches have credited Meriweather with 70 tackles, tied for third on the team.
Belichick said Meriweather has really improved on working closer to the line of scrimmage. That was a Harrison specialty, as he attacked the physical challenge of taking on bigger blockers to assist against the run, but also had speed to protect the middle and deep parts of the field.
Meriweather (5 feet 11 inches, 200 pounds) has also been utilized more as a coverage player, such as when he lined up in the slot against four-receiver packages against the St. Louis Rams Oct. 26.
"Through the course of the season, he's been asked to do a lot of different things and he just really has improved in all of them," Belichick said. "I think he's having a good year."
Meriweather, who estimated he dropped about six would-be interceptions last season, believes his ball skills are one area he has improved from his rookie campaign (he has a team-high four interceptions). He's had few, if any, physical problems from the expanded role.
"I've always tried to be one of the best-conditioned guys on the team," Meriweather said. "My comfort level is pretty high right now. I'm having fun playing the game."
No quarterback has attempted (550) and completed (376) more passes than the Cardinals' Kurt Warner, whose 68.4 completion percentage is the best in the NFL.
"I think they're probably one of the best teams that we're going to play as far as throwing the ball around," Meriweather said.
Anquan Boldin (89 catches, 1,038 yards, 11 TDs), Larry Fitzgerald (88 catches, 1,200 yards, 9 TDs), and Steve Breaston (71 catches, 909 yards, 2 TDs) rank 1-2-3 as the Cardinals' top receivers.
Part of what makes the receivers a challenging matchup is their size - Boldin is 6-1, 217 pounds, Fitzgerald is 6-3, 220, and Breaston is 6-0, 189.
The Patriots' top three cornerbacks - Jonathan Wilhite (5-11, 185), Ellis Hobbs (5-9, 195), and Deltha O'Neal (5-11, 194) - will have to execute proper leverage and technique to measure up in one-on-one situations.
"Any time you play a good offense, it comes down to everyone doing their job," Belichick said. "You can't just take one thing away. They have too many weapons."
"With the rain and the ball-handling and all that, even though we had a lead there, I just felt like to put Kevin in cold in that kind of situation, with the conditions what they were and standing there for three hours, I just thought that was probably not the right time to do it," he said.
Mike Reiss can be reached at email@example.com.