|Though he doesn’t play a starting role, safety James Sanders is a key performer and guidance-giver in the secondary as the most experienced player in the Patriots’ system. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)|
At home being in charge
Patriots’ Sanders is a born leader
FOXBOROUGH — His days at Fresno State no doubt prepared James Sanders for his role as the leader of the Patriots’ secondary. But Sanders’s training in how to manage the uncertain situations that come up as an NFL safety began long before his days with the Bulldogs.
Growing up in Porterville, a small city in central California, Sanders took on responsibility at a young age. Beginning when he was around 11, he cared for his five younger siblings while their mother worked long hours as a nurse.
His duties ranged from cooking dinner to changing diapers, getting everyone ready for school to making sure homework was completed. In short, Kathy Thompson counted on her eldest child to make sure the household ran smoothly. Which is what Sanders does now for the Patriots’ defensive backfield, make sure it runs smoothly.
“I’d say it helps a little bit, having that responsibility as a young child and growing up the oldest of all my brothers and sisters, having to take responsibility when my mother wasn’t home,’’ Sanders said. “But I think that helps me become a more vocal leader because for the most part I like to just lead by example, just work hard, do the right things. But when need be, when I have to, I can step up and be vocal and tell the guys, ‘Hey, we need to get something done,’ and make sure it gets taken care of.’’
Off the field, Sanders is the quintessential lead by example type: He works diligently in the film room and in his playbook to know his jobs and the defense as a whole, and is relatively quiet, though teammates can always approach him with questions.
But on the field, it’s a different story.
“Oh, as soon as I step between those lines,’’ he ceases being reserved, he said. “When I step between those lines, there’s a lot of talking, a lot of communication. If I need to get on certain players I’ll do that. For the most part I do keep to myself, but once I step between those lines I’ve got to put that personality to the back burner and do what I have to do to run the defense.’’
His ability to communicate makes a difference. Last year, Sanders lost his starting spot to Brandon McGowan after Week 1, then suffered a shoulder injury that caused him to miss two games. When he returned, Sanders’s snaps plummeted, though it was clear the secondary was often out of position and not playing as disciplined.
When he was reinserted into the starting lineup for the final four regular-season games, the Patriots’ pass defense looked more cohesive and things settled down.
A fourth-round draft pick in 2005, Sanders is the elder statesman among the safeties and corners. He has a “sense of comfort’’ in a defense he calls complex.
He probably knows more than he’ll let on: Brandon Meriweather has always turned to Sanders for guidance, and newcomer Jarrad Page, who came in an early-September trade with the Chiefs, knows where to go for help, too.
“It’s good to have someone like James around because he’s played in the system for six years now,’’ Page said. “So any questions you may have about the defense, you don’t have to grab a coach. He’s a good guy to go to and ask about a certain defense, how you do this, how you do that, you can always ask James.’’
Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who spent the 2008 season as a special defensive assistant/secondary coach with the Patriots, says he had “the good fortune’’ to coach Sanders. He highlights many of the qualities teammates of Sanders mention: the 27-year-old was a true professional whose attention to detail and preparation were excellent.
Sanders already has a career-high three interceptions, none more important than the one he pulled in Nov. 21 in the closing seconds of the win over the Colts. Peyton Manning, with the Colts already in range for a field goal that could have forced overtime, threw deep for Pierre Garcon. Only it was Sanders who came down with the ball, sealing the victory.
Sanders has six pass breakups as well, also his high for a season, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery.
By and large, Sanders doesn’t make spectacular plays like the Steelers’ Troy Polamalu or Ravens’ Ed Reed. But he also doesn’t make many mistakes.
“I think when you evaluate a safety, consistency is pretty much the No. 1 thing that you want out of him,’’ Page said. “Yeah, people can make the plays to be on ESPN, but ESPN doesn’t show when guys blow coverages and stuff, and you won’t get that from him.
“He won’t blow coverages, he won’t miss checks . . . you may not be on ‘SportsCenter’ Top 10 every night, but are you going to hang your corners out to dry? Are you going to be somewhere that you’re not supposed to be? He’s not going to do that.’’
“That would be one of his signatures, his consistency,’’ Capers agreed.
Sanders takes the same approach every day. Just as he once felt a sense of responsibility to his mother, ensuring that his siblings were well cared for, he feels the same responsibility now to his teammates.
“I take a lot of pride and dignity in what I do,’’ he said. “Making sure the defense runs efficiently and smoothly.’’