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Pass, fail?

Bengals receivers may take Patriot DBs to secondary school

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By John Powers
Globe Staff / September 12, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH — The man from Cincinnati needed advice on 18th-century colonial weaponry.

“Does anyone know if i need gun powder to shoot the musket when i score this sunday?’’, Chad Ochocinco asked his Twitter entourage last week.

Not that the rapid-firing Bengals receiver is planning on becoming a one-man militia this afternoon when he and his striped playmates take on the Patriots in the season opener at Gillette Stadium. Nothing revolutionary intended. Ochocinco just wanted to shake the local citizenry out of its late-summer snooze.

“just checking yo pulse home team,’’ he tweeted.

So Darius Butler was pleased to engage in a bit of cyber-banter last week to let Ochocinco and the rest of the Bengals’ traveling circus know that there would indeed be 11 men on the opposite side of the ball.

“Just trash talking,’’ said Butler, the Patriots second-year cornerback who will be a key man today. “Just talking noise. I’m sure he’ll be talking on the field. Nothing more than that.’’

Once the clock is ticking and the ball is in motion, everyone will have a better sense of whether Cincinnati’s jazzed-up offense is more than Ochocinco and Terrell Owens and their motor-mouthed reality show, and whether the rejiggered New England defense, with five new starters, can keep its cool and cohesion under fire.

Not that last year’s unit, which was torched by the Colts and Saints during the regular season and by the Ravens in the playoffs, was a model of stability. But after parting ways with linebacker Adalius Thomas, defensive end Jarvis Green, and cornerback Shawn Springs, and having defensive end Ty Warren (hip) and cornerback Leigh Bodden (shoulder) go down for the season, the Patriots have had to plug in reserves, rookies, and free agents.

“It’s kind of a reconstructed group there,’’ observed Bengals coach Marvin Lewis.

Not that anyone expected that last year’s lineup would return after the postseason meltdown.

“I think every year you go into games with new people somewhere,’’ said coach Bill Belichick. “The team is always a little different than it was the year before. Our team is like that. So is every other team.’’

But it’s rare that the Patriots have started a season with so little experience at the corners. Though Butler played in 14 games as a rookie, he started in only five. And rookie Devin McCourty’s last game that counted was for Rutgers in the St. Petersburg Bowl.

In Ochocinco and Owens, they’ll be up against a brace of wideouts who have logged 23 years and nearly 350 games, catching 1,690 passes for 24,903 yards and 206 touchdowns and playing in a dozen Pro Bowls.

“When you dream about playing in the NFL, you dream about playing against the best,’’ said Butler. “I’m looking forward to it and I’m sure the rest of the secondary is.’’

Owens and Ochocinco, who fancy themselves as Batman and Robin and have dubbed quarterback Carson Palmer “Alfred,’’ their faithful factotum, are clearly the league’s most entertaining and explosive duo.

“It’s going to be a freakin’ symphony out there,’’ predicts Ochocinco. “We’re going to go hand in hand.’’

But the Bengals also come with running back Cedric Benson, who gained more than 1,250 yards last year in only 12 full games, plus top draft pick Jermaine Gresham at tight end and fellow rookie Jordan Shipley in the slot.

“They do a lot of formations,’’ said Belichick. “They give you a lot of different looks and they have a lot of good players to do it with. They’ve got four good receivers that play, two backs. They keep ’em coming.’’

If the New England defense needs an early-season stress indicator, the Bengals are built to provide it.

“I’m sure it’ll be a huge test,’’ said Butler. “It’ll be a great challenge for us Week 1 to see where we are right off the break.’’

Much of the burden will be on Butler and McCourty, who will be manning crucial positions where the Patriots have been accustomed to having at least one savvy veteran — Ty Law, Asante Samuel, Ellis Hobbs, Bodden — in place.

Not that the new occupants are simply stopgaps for a team in transition. Butler was a second-round choice in 2009 and McCourty a first-rounder this year, the first time that New England has taken a true cornerback that high since Chris Canty in 1997.

“These are two very talented young players that we spent a lot of time evaluating in the draft,’’ said Lewis, “and they have a lot of ability.’’

And while Ochocinco and Owens present a double-barreled dilemma, it’s not as if the Patriots corners haven’t been tested daily in practice by Mssrs. Brady, Moss, and Welker.

When he turned up as a rookie out of Connecticut, Butler realized instantly that he no longer was watching a highlight film.

“I got past that point real quick,’’ he recalled. “When I came in my first minicamp, Tom and Wes and Randy were out there.’’

McCourty had no fantasies about stepping into a starting job.

“I didn’t really think about anything like that right away,’’ he said. “I thought, how can I go in and get better and prove that I was worthy of being picked that early?’’

Adapting to the skill and speed of the professional game and the swift 6-point punishment that comes with a momentary misjudgment has been an exacting and continuing assignment.

“There’s an adjustment and I think I’m still getting used to that,’’ McCourty said. “I don’t think it’s something that you just click and it’s right on. I’m still going through it.’’

After an accelerated apprenticeship, he has to be up to the mark today, ready or not, which is why McCourty hasn’t been bashful about seeking counsel from his confreres in the secondary.

“Learning from all the other guys who’ve been in this position, their first start,’’ he said. “Like Brandon Meriweather back there, a guy who’s played a lot. Just trying to learn from him, see what advice he gives me.’’

Part of the Patriot Way is that veterans tutor rookies because they know they’ll have to rely on them, sometimes sooner rather than later.

“I had guys help me along the way like Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel,’’ said linebacker Jerod Mayo, who started every game as a rookie two years ago. “Hopefully I can play that same role for those guys.’’

The New England defense traditionally has been a mutual aid society, and with only three starters remaining from the 2007 Super Bowl team, group support is more important than it has been for a while. Which is why Ochocinco impishly was inquiring about whether Butler might need safety help all game long today.

Can the Patriots’ corners be their cornerstones?

“I think they’ll do fine,’’ predicted Mayo. “They’ve been preparing well, they’re practicing well. And hopefully they’ll show up on Sunday.’’

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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