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Focus here is shifting

Chargers to test Patriot secondary

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / September 18, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH - Facing the Miami Dolphins last week was something like an open-book test for the Patriots’ young secondary. Today against San Diego might be more like taking the SAT.

The Dolphins’ new offensive coordinator, Brian Daboll, got his NFL start with the Patriots, and his offense remains nearly identical to New England’s. So what Patrick Chung, Devin McCourty, and their teammates saw last Monday night was incredibly familiar: It was something they saw every day in training camp.

But the Chargers’ offense is completely different. And it will be a challenge on a variety of levels.

“San Diego is going to force the secondary and the defense to adjust a lot more than Miami did,’’ said Eric Mangini, former coach-turned-ESPN analyst. “There’s a significant amount of shifting and motioning and hard-to-adjust-to formations, and then they will also run the no-huddle, which they do effectively, an up-tempo no-huddle outside of two-minute.

“So all those things are things, to me, that 1. present problems, but 2. present problems when you have a new defense.

“And that’s where I think the secondary is going to get really tested this week because they’re going to have to communicate a lot. I’ll bet you as you watch the game, you’re going to see much more of that than you saw against Miami in terms of them talking to each other, signals. They have to. They have to.’’

Mangini, of course, also began his NFL career with Bill Belichick. He was the Patriots’ defensive backs coach in 2004 when the unit had so many injuries that wide receiver Troy Brown filled in at cornerback, linebacker Don Davis was asked to play safety, undrafted rookie corner Randall Gay played in all but one game, and journeyman Earthwind Moreland was signed off the street in November.

The patchwork unit, which benefitted from having Rodney Harrison as its leader for the entire season, helped the Patriots win a third Super Bowl title.

New England’s secondary now is a unit in flux. Steady James Sanders, an excellent communicator, is gone, as are Brandon Meriweather and Darius Butler. The reins essentially were handed to third-year safety Chung, a role he is ready to assume. But he is paired on the back end with two largely untested players: Josh Barrett and Sergio Brown.

All of the personnel changes, as well as the Patriots’ change in defense - they played all but a handful of snaps with four down linemen and are playing more press-man coverage in the secondary than zone - are why Mangini believes today will be a tough test.

The Chargers’ Philip Rivers is a better quarterback than the Dolphins’ Chad Henne. Miami has Brandon Marshall and Davone Bess, but San Diego’s Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd are each 6 feet 5 inches, and while Marshall is also a big receiver, Jackson is more talented and didn’t play last year when the Patriots and Chargers met because of a contract dispute.

Patrick Crayton had seven catches against the Patriots last year, and stellar tight end Antonio Gates was hampered by a toe injury.

The San Diego offense is at full strength now, and Rivers completed passes to eight receivers in a season-opening win over Minnesota.

Cornerback Antwaun Molden, the newest member of the New England group - having been signed the day before the preseason finale - knows how important it is that he not only learns everything he needs to in the playbook, but also that the Patriots learn each other’s tendencies.

“I think chemistry and rapport is imperative on the back end, because with football, you want to play as one,’’ he said. “And I think it’s important for all of us to work in unison. When we have good communication off the field, we should have good communication on the field as well. I know that plays a big part of us playing together as one.’’

Chung said Sanders and Meriweather used to communicate with one another on the field with just a look, and he and his current teammates need to get to that level. But it doesn’t happen overnight.

“It definitely takes time,’’ he said. “It takes watching film together, just hearing their voices in the film room, watching film, and ‘Hey, everybody make the call,’ so you know that they all know the calls, they all know what they’re doing, and then just go from there.’’

And that’s one thing they don’t have the luxury of: time.

Asked if there is pressure to get on the same page right now, Chung said, “Definitely. The season’s started now, we can’t wait too long. It has to have a sense of urgency’’ - he snapped his fingers - “to get things going on the defense so we can play fast.

“Once you know what you’re doing and you’re confident in knowing the playbook, you can play fast instinctively and you can make plays.’’

Not only is there not extra time to get the communication to an optimum level, but as Mangini noted, because of how the Chargers run their offense, there won’t be much time today to make sure the corners and safeties are lined up properly on a play-by-play basis.

And Chung will be the one to lead the group on the field.

“The corners need to be able to get the communication and be involved in the communication, but it’s the safeties who will drive the communication across the board,’’ Mangini said.

“It’s tough. This is tough. This is a hard situation, because not only are you dealing with a group of young guys, but you’re dealing with a new defense.

“A lot of things in the secondary can run independent of the front, but a lot of them are tied in deeply to what’s happening up front in terms of the linebacker making adjustments, who’s got which tight end if it’s man-to-man defense.

“The one thing I’ve noticed: They’re playing a significant amount of man-to-man - true, press man-to-man defense - which in that situation, that simplifies things to some degree because [players know], ‘You’ve got this receiver, I’ve got that receiver,’ which is great.

“But the downside is you’re playing a lot of press man-to-man, so if they catch the ball deep, it’s going for a long way and then underneath if you miss a tackle or get picked, it’s typically going for a long way.’’

One thing that will help the secondary a great deal is if the front seven can generate pressure on Rivers and disrupt his timing or force him to throw quickly.

The secondary players should have their pencils sharpened, because they’re going to get quite the test today.

“I really feel like this is the weekend that you’ll see where they are in terms of this defense and this group of young secondary players,’’ Mangini said. “Because it’s a talented [San Diego] group even if they didn’t move, but now it’s a talented group that shifts, motions, lines up in different places.

“So you have to be able to cover and you also got to be able to figure out who’s covering who and how are we going to play different things. It’s a pretty big headache.’’

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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