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By Tom E. Curran
FOXBORO - Look around the Patriots secondary as it's presently constituted. Brandon Meriweather and Devin McCourty, both first-round picks. Terrence Wheatley, Patrick Chung and Darius Butler, all second-round picks. Leigh Bodden, a free-agent pickup who came in last year and earned himself a generous deal in the offseason to stay.
If the Patriots didn't think those guys were playmakers, they wouldn't have selected them that highly. And if they didn't value secondary play, they would have spent those picks elsewhere.
Yet for all the currency sunk into the secondary, Thursday night's game against the St. Louis Rams was discouraging testimony that this group still has mastered the art of being at the scene of the crime a second after the perp slides down the fire escape.
Or something like that.
Bottom line, the Patriots need playmakers to unveil themselves back there. And there is no sign that's about to happen.
Thursday's performance, in which the Rams' two rookie quarterbacks completed more than 70 percent of their passes for 334 yards and three touchdowns, cannot be dismissed as just a practice game in August. First of all, it's supposed to be the night in which the material learned in more than 30 training-camp sessions is executed. And secondly, while it might have been the first time in the 2010 season the group was flat, it's not the first time we've seen it.
There seemed to be the familiar lack of communication. Even worse, hesitancy and a lack of being able to play freely and intuitively knowing the other guy will do his job was evident.
Disclaimers? Sure, why not. Bodden was just back from the knee injury that kept him out of the first two preseason games, so he was a little stale. And McCourty, who looked like a kid chasing an ice-cream truck on three different occasions, can be excused for a bad rookie performance after two decent ones.
But, as James Sanders mentioned after the game, the Patriots were often in the right defense - they simply failed to execute. Why? And why did it happen all game long not just for a series or two?
Sanders noted one play on which the Patriots had a double-team on Rams slot receiver Danny Amendola. And he still got free on a third down to move the chains.
That was either the third-and-3 when Amendola got 4 or the third-and-5 on which he got 12. But it couldn't have been the second-and-13 on which he got 18 because that was a second-down play. Either way, you don't really enter a game thinking undrafted Danny Amendola is going to tear the heart out of your blue-chip secondary and show it to them while it's still beating.
Or Michael Hoomanawanui, for that matter, the rookie tight end who caught four passes for 53 yards and two touchdowns. Clearly a pretty talented kid, but how Chung and Bodden could allow him to sit down in coverage two steps from both of them on a second-and-goal play from the 12, make the catch and wheel into the end zone virtually untouched was mind-boggling.
A good secondary doesn't only prevent those easy plays from happening, it also makes a few when the degree of difficulty is not in its favor.
But, honestly, how often do you see that happen? In this preseason, Jonathan Wilhite had a pick against Atlanta on which he appeared to be the intended receiver and Eric Alexander and Brandon McGowan had picks in the time of garbage.
In 2009, the Patriots finished with 18 picks. One came from Randy Moss on a Hail Mary at the halftime gun. Bodden had five - three of which Mark Sanchez threw directly to him. Meriweather also had five, two against the Buccaneers and whichever schlub they had throwing that week. Can anyone recall saying last year about one of those picks, "Wow, what a great play that was!"? I really can't.
The Patriots had 89 picks from 2001 through 2004. They had 65 picks from 2005 through 2008. And we're not even talking postseason picks, which came in bunches in the early part of last decade.
We hear over and over that the pass rush and the coverage are intertwined and that's certainly true. If a quarterback has time to plant his foot, survey and release, he's going to devastate a secondary.
But if the Patriots didn't believe their secondary was an issue, they wouldn't have brought in Corwin Brown in the offseason to work with the safeties and be an extra pair of hands that would theoretically wring the potential out of this group. Thursday night's game makes you wonder how much better he's helped them get.
And in two weeks, the Patriots won't be checking Bradford, Amendola and Hoomanawanui. They'll be facing a big-boy passing attack with Carson Palmer, Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens.
Think they don't need a bib to catch the drool after watching the Rams' tape?
"It's one game and we made some mistakes in this game and we've got to correct it," said Bodden. "This is a game where you do have to go out and show what you have but unfortunately we didn't come out and show what we had."
Correction. They did show what they had. They showed what they've been. And that's late to the party for no explicable reason.New England Patriots, Tom E. Curran