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Meriweather establishing comfort zone

By Albert R. Breer
Globe Staff / October 30, 2009

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FOXBOROUGH - Like any rookie, Pat Chung has rabbit ears these days.

But his eyes are trained chiefly in one direction. And here’s what he’s gathered watching the guy, Brandon Meriweather, he’s looking at.

“He stays calm - stays calm,’’ Chung said, pausing for emphasis. “He’s never jumpy, never panicking. He’s just really calm.’’

That’s the Brandon Meriweather of 2009. Calm. Poised. Confident.

It wasn’t always that way for the Patriots safety.

The rookie Meriweather of 2007 got chewed out by coaches. He was afraid to make mistakes. As a result, he couldn’t be the player he was capable of becoming.

“I was all nervous, and that was my biggest thing,’’ Meriweather said. “I just had to find a way to stop being so nervous in the games, and just relax and play.’’

Goal met.

Last Sunday in London, the NFL met Meriweather, formally.

He broke like a cheetah on a ball thrown underneath to a Tampa Bay receiver who thought he found a spot in the Patriots’ zone coverage, intercepted that ball, and returned it 39 yards for New England’s first touchdown. On the next series, Meriweather got his hand on another Josh Johnson pass, had the presence of mind to grab it after it popped into the air, then returned that pick 31 yards.

Everyone got to see the fruition of Meriweather’s 2 1/2-year journey into the high-rent district of safeties.

“He’s more disciplined,’’ said ex-Patriots safety Rodney Harrison, now an NBC analyst, who on Sunday called Meriweather the new leader of the defense. “He’s not just doing his own thing anymore. Before, he was playing fast, but he tried to play outside the defense, and do his own thing.

“Now, if he’s in the deep half, he’ll stay there and do his job, as opposed to coming down out of the deep half to try and make a play, and getting beat over the top.

“Bill [Belichick] always expressed to us that if you do your job within the defense, then the plays are going to come. And that’s what’s happened with Brandon.’’

The plays Meriweather made Sunday are what mark the NFL’s best safeties of this generation.

Think Ed Reed, and it’s hard not to conjure the image of the Raven All-Pro galloping to paydirt after picking off the Dolphins’ Chad Pennington in last season’s playoffs. Think Troy Polamalu, and roll tape of him leaping for a pick and weaving 40 yards through Ravens to put away the AFC Championship game two weeks later.

Granted, the stage was bigger and the opponent tougher for those two than it was for Meriweather last Sunday. But even against a sorry team in Week 7 of the season, the plays showed Meriweather is making progress in that direction.

To do that, his nerves had to calm, but also there was the one essential part of the interception he had to get down: catching the ball. Harrison said Meriweather “might have dropped eight’’ interceptions last year, and rest assured, he was aware of it. Meriweather says he’s always been able to catch. That didn’t stop him from working on it.

“I played catch all day every day with coach [Pepper Johnson] and the other guys,’’ he said. “I started catching little tennis balls, and working on my hand-eye coordination. I’d play catch with anyone. I played catch with my little brother. I’d play catch by myself in the house. I did a lot of little things to get better.’’

The big thing, though, came in his overall approach.

While Meriweather has never been a problem child for New England, he says that the birth of his daughter - which happened during the 2008 opener against Kansas City - prompted him to step up his professionalism.

“I’m playing for her,’’ he said. “That changed my approach to everything.’’

And so he has harnessed all the knowledge built over his short career.

He’s studying more film, evidenced by his plan to take Dolphins tape with him to Florida for the bye weekend. But he’s also drawing on the lessons he learned earlier in his career.

One came in his rookie year when he was deployed as an outside corner and a slot corner, while also playing his natural position of safety. Easy, it wasn’t. Valuable, it was.

“In the short term, I don’t think that helped him,’’ Harrison said. “He was frustrated, confused, they moved him all over the place. But now, he’s learned the defense from different positions, and he’s one of the only players to know it like that.’’

Wes Welker, who was serving up some of those lessons to Meriweather in practices, said, “He’s come a long way.’’

Harrison thinks Meriweather has come far enough that he can say, “That’s his secondary now.’’

Meriweather disputes that, saying it’s “the New England Patriots secondary.’’ But many people in Foxborough think it is.

“He’s just a great young player,’’ new Patriots corner Leigh Bodden said. “I think the range that he has is up there and just his awareness. As a young player, just to be aware of the situations, plays, formations, he’s definitely like a veteran back there.’’

Meriweather still has work to do. He feels he can be more consistent, and deciding when to go for the big hit and when to settle for the sure tackle is a balancing act.

But the hard part is over. The game has slowed down.

As Meriweather says, “I’m relaxed.’’

As a result, he’s playing like the guy he was always capable of becoming.

Albert R. Breer can be reached at abreer@globe.com.

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