Blend, don’t break
Patriot secondary putting it together
FOXBOROUGH - If there is one fact that shows just how much the Patriots secondary has changed in a year, it might be this: On the opening week of last season, they started Ellis Hobbs, Lewis Sanders, James Sanders, and Rodney Harrison in their defensive backfield. Three of those players are no longer with the Patriots, and one hardly sees the field anymore.
The Patriots reconstructed their secondary in the offseason, a process that is succeeding while still evolving as the season chugs toward the midway point. With surging safety Brandon Meriweather serving as something close to a centerpiece, the Patriots have rotated new veterans and rookies to create a group that is becoming one of the league’s top units.
The Patriots, in their bye week, rank fifth in the NFL in passing yards allowed, surrendering 176.3 per game, and their seven interceptions are tied for seventh. Opposing quarterbacks have completed 56.5 percent of their passes against the Patriots, sixth-best in the league.
With changing personnel and new parts, the secondary is thriving in a fluid state.
“I think we have come together pretty good,’’ said safety Brandon McGowan, a castoff from the Chicago Bears whom the Patriots signed last May. “Preseason, we were a little shaky. We were just getting a feel for everybody, how everybody plays, how everybody reacts in certain situations. It’s coming together quite well.’’
The parties responsible have shifted as the season has worn, with rookies Patrick Chung and Darius Butler emerging in more primary roles and veterans Shawn Springs and James Sanders watching their playing time dwindle. The arrival of new defensive backs has fostered competition and erased self-satisfaction.
“That’s how you have to go into any position,’’ said starting cornerback Leigh Bodden, another offseason acquisition. “Stay on your toes, never get complacent. Competition just helps everybody.
“Later on down the road, guys are going to get hurt, maybe for a few games or a few plays, and you’ll need guys to step in and do a good job.’’
The depth protects against attrition. Last year, against the St. Louis Rams, the Patriots lost three defensive backs to injury. On the final drive of the game, coach Bill Belichick resorted to “trying to find bodies to put out there.’’ The Patriots had to move Meriweather down to cornerback.
After Harrison retired and Hobbs was traded, the Patriots reloaded through the draft and with what seemed like minor signings. Safety Chung was their first draft choice, and cornerback Butler was their third (both picked in the second round). They signed Bodden, McGowan, and Springs.
The acclimation of Chung and Butler has provided depth, with Butler’s improvement thrusting him into a primary role at corner. He played every defensive snap two weeks ago against the Titans, and he played on 79 percent of the plays last week. Springs has played only 14 of 112 defensive plays the past two weeks.
Meanwhile, Chung has seemingly replaced Sanders as the third safety. Sanders, who began the year starting ahead of McGowan, played three snaps against the Buccaneers. Chung played 40, receiving regular time in the nickel and dime packages.
Even 70 or so practices into the season, the defensive backs are still learning details about one another. In one dime package last Sunday, four of the six defensive backs on the field were in their first year with the Patriots, and two of them were NFL rookies.
“Our chemistry is great,’’ Bodden said. “We have to feed off each other.’’
Cornerback Jonathan Wilhite said last season that young secondaries, yet to learn their fellow defensive backs’ tendencies, need to communicate more than experienced units. The Patriots defensive backs constantly chatter before plays, and they have developed more and more hand signals.
“It’s always a learning process, no matter what position you play or who you play with,’’ Bodden said. “But I think we’ve jelled well. I think everybody knows how each other plays and how each other thinks. We definitely communicate well. That’s a big part of it. That’s what’s making us become a good secondary.’’
In practice, the Patriots’ offense provides an ideal test. As much as any team in the NFL, the Patriots use varied sets of receivers, different routes, and plays changed at the line of scrimmage. After facing their own offense, little surprises the secondary on Sundays.
“We try to build that base and get everybody on the same page, so whichever players are in there, they understand,’’ Belichick said. “We get a good look at that in practice, and we probably see as much in practice as we see each week on the field. That helps the process, too.’’
The callow secondary reflects an overall trend on the Patriots defense.
“It has gotten young,’’ running back Kevin Faulk said.
A unit that lost Harrison, Mike Vrabel, and Tedy Bruschi now boasts a gaggle of second-year players and rookies, including defensive leader Jerod Mayo.
But no area has changed as rapidly as the secondary. The defensive backs have made the transition seamless, and they have done it together.
“That’s very important,’’ McGowan said. “It’s all about getting everybody on the same page. When everybody is on the same page, everybody is playing as one, as a whole, that makes it even better.’’
Albert R. Breer of the Globe staff contributed to this report.