Samuel steps right in
FOXBOROUGH -- On the first play of the fourth quarter, the Jets were 5 yards from a first down in Patriots territory near midfield, trailing, 16-9, and planning to go to Old Reliable Wayne Chrebet for a first down. Patriots rookie cornerback Asante Samuel also knew what the Jets were up to -- and vowed to hang on Chrebet like a starstruck groupie.
The Jets did the expected. Chrebet made a quick cut to the left, but lost his balance. Samuel did the unexpected. He stepped into the area where Chrebet might have been, intercepted Vinny Testaverde's pass, bobbled it for a moment, regained his composure and possession, and went 55 yards down the right sideline, untouched, for a touchdown.
On a day when big plays were at a premium, Samuel's TD might have been biggest of the day. It gave the Patriots a 23-9 lead and sufficient breathing room to hold off the Jets, 23-16. It was the rookie's first interception and, needless to say, his first touchdown.
"Asante made a great play on that interception," said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. "He's done that to me in practice a few times. It was nice to see it happen to some other quarterback."
The player coach Bill Belichick says "consistently seems to show up where the ball is" also had two deflections, one of them later in the fourth when the Jets were trying to tie the game. While Samuel had seen some action in the first two games, he saw more yesterday after Ty Law was briefly sidelined with an ankle injury.
"He's a ball magnet," Law said of Samuel. "He's a great young player and he's helping us a lot, a lot more than I would have imagined."
Samuel joined the Patriots this season after four years at that well-known football factory, Central Florida. He was taken in the fourth round, 120th overall, after a solid college career. Belichick said he's been impressed with the 5-foot-10-inch, 180-pound Samuel since the early minicamps and through training camp and the exhibition season.
"He's been a pretty solid player since he's been here," Belichick said. "He's got a knack for being around the ball. He just kinda knows how to play. The ball seems to find him or he seems to find the ball."
But what happened to Samuel yesterday never happened to him in four years at Central Florida, where he also returned punts and kickoffs in addition to playing cornerback and safety. He had eight interceptions in college for 71 yards and he returned 63 kickoffs for 673 yards and 10 punts for 168 yards. But he never scored a touchdown, according to the Patriots media guide.
Maybe that's why you could forgive the kid for batting around the Testaverde pass before collecting the ball -- and his wits -- and finishing the play.
"I bobbled it at first because I was looking towards the end zone and I wasn't concentrating," Samuel said. "But I got myself together, concentrated and kept my eyes on it. And I scored a touchdown. It was a great feeling."
Samuel said that Chrebet was his guy, all along. He said he knew the veteran Jets wideout, who scored New York's only touchdown, was "a real shifty guy with a lot of moves." He said he knew Chrebet was a terrific third-down receiver. He said that in the defensive huddle before the big play, safety Eugene Wilson had suggested doubling up on the wideouts. But, Samuel said, he declined.
"I told him, `I want Chrebet,' " Samuel said. "I told him, `Stick with your man. I'll take mine.' "
Testaverde said he wanted to make a low, hard pass to Chrebet. He noticed Samuel made a good break on the ball and then watched, helplessly, as Chrebet stumbled briefly and Samuel stepped in. The cornerback flew down the sideline with no Jet near him and soon was mobbed by his teammates.
"It was wonderful," said cornerback Tyrone Poole. "I normally don't run all the way downfield, but that play, that was big. He made several plays that were real big. But the interception was the No. 1 thing. So he gets my game ball for this week."
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.