FOXBOROUGH -- The biggest story concerning the Patriots as they entered last weekend's postseason opener against the Colts turned into a nonstory. How would New England's patchwork secondary hold up against the vaunted Indianapolis passing game, with the mighty Peyton Manning at the controls?
Very well, thank you. None of the Colts' three 1,000-yard receivers -- including perennial Pro Bowler Marvin Harrison -- got near the end zone in the Patriots' 20-3 victory.
The feeling was if this secondary could survive the Colts, it could survive anything.
OK, the names still do not slip off the tongue. They are the no-name secondary. Missing Ty Law (foot surgery) and Tyrone Poole (knee surgery) for the majority of the season, the No. 1 corner on the Patriots' depth chart is Asante Samuel.
It's no longer such a frightening thought.
Samuel, in his second season out of Central Florida, was the team's primary nickel back last season. In training camp he began to challenge Poole for playing time. When Poole went down, Samuel stepped in very well as the secondary didn't miss a beat.
Then Law went down against the Steelers Oct. 31, and all eyes turned to Samuel. He was no longer a complement; he was No. 1.
This shy young man, who has cut his teeth on a Super Bowl champion, is going to be the main man in tomorrow's AFC Championship game against the Steelers. Suddenly, a playbook that once read like the Swahili name his father gave him (and that he in turn gave his son) reads like English.
Whether he covers Plaxico Burress or Hines Ward, the spotlight will be focused on No. 22, known as "Zont" or "Truck" to his closest friends.
Samuel claims he doesn't read the newspapers or listen to commentary, but he's certainly aware of the concern/criticism about the secondary.
"Of course you get tired of hearing that," Samuel said. "We've been hearing that since the third and fourth weeks of the season. I get tired of it, and I just try to block that out and go out there and play ball."
What he needed to do to get to this point was become a consistent player. After Samuel had taken some time to come back from an injury, Rodney Harrison took him aside in training camp. He told Samuel that he had tremendous talent, but that he wasn't showing it every day. He felt his performance was spotty -- up one day, down the next.
Samuel got the message. He realized the NFL isn't Central Florida, and that inconsistency can cost you a career.
Samuel was lauded by coach Bill Belichick and his teammates for having a natural talent for having his hands around the ball, something the Patriots had seen in him as a college player. His selection in the fourth round now looks like a steal.
Hitting his stride
Samuel has had a knack for making plays, and is a big hitter -- in the Indianapolis game, he drove receiver Brandon Stokley into the Gillette Stadium turf after a 5-yard reception moments before the end of the first half.
"A big hit always gives your team momentum," Samuel said. "Whoever gets it done, gets it done." Samuel got it done, and it didn't appear the Indianapolis receivers were too keen on going over the middle with Samuel in the area.
After the game, Harrison praised Samuel for playing so hard and playing through a painful shoulder injury he had suffered the last few weeks of the regular season. Samuel had realized that his team needed him more than ever, and Harrison appreciated that Samuel responded.
"I can't speak for the critics, all I know is we went out there and we did our job," Samuel said. "It most definitely motivates you. When people doubt you and tell you you can't do something and you can't get the job done, I just go out there with a little chip on my shoulder and try to prove them wrong."
Samuel now has a new motivation: beating the Steelers.
"They beat us down pretty bad [Oct. 31]," he said. "We're going to go out there and definitely try to play a better game than we did the last time."
And while the assignment was pretty tough last week -- trying to cover mostly Harrison, who was held to five receptions -- the task is a little different tomorrow. Harrison is a finesse receiver with unique abilities. The two guys he'll face against the Steelers -- Burress (6 feet 5 inches, 226 pounds) and Ward (6 feet, 215) -- present size problems.
Samuel is listed at 5-10, 185 pounds, and he can leap.
"They're bigger, stronger, and they're definitely more physical [than the Colts]," Samuel said. "It's going to be a different kind of matchup. With a bigger receiver, you don't want to get into a shoving match, because he would definitely have the advantage because he's bigger and stronger and he has a long wingspan."
Certainly, the first meeting with the Steelers exploited the weaknesses in the Patriots' secondary. Two plays after Law went down, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hit Burress with a 47-yard touchdown pass over Randall Gay.
"It was kind of shocking," recalled Samuel. "When Ty went down, we only had one more corner and that was Randall. We were like, `If he goes down, who do we have to look to next?' We just got through it and fought through it."
Samuel is right. The initial sting of losing Law was felt hard. But the secondary calmed down, and everyone played better in the second half. It seemed the worst part was over, and then the Patriots coaches were able to game-plan around their personnel losses.
This time Samuel could draw Ward, a physical receiver who is similar in style to David Givens. Samuel has certainly had quality practice time against Givens.
Samuel, even at age 24, is the most seasoned Patriots corner on the game-day roster. While he doesn't feel like the old guy, Samuel is beginning to garner respect in the form of other corners asking him for advice. In other words, Samuel has had to grow up fast. It reminds some Patriots observers of the meteoric rise of Law as a vocal leader after Law came out of Michigan as a No. 1 pick in 1995 and quickly became noted for his aggressive style on the field.
"I don't look at myself as an older guy or a veteran or anything like that," Samuel said. "But, we are a unit. We have a lot of unity. We help each other out. If we see something wrong -- it could be Randall, it could be Rodney, or it could be me -- we just help each other out."
With Samuel's maturity has come a love for studying the game. He says he spends a lot of time with defensive backs coach Eric Mangini after practice just to "make sure the communication isn't lacking and making sure we've got the plays down right."
Samuel knows that playing corner in the NFL is not for the faint of heart. The corners are considered the best athletes on the team, but they're exposed to the most disastrous situations on the field -- getting beat for a score.
Some weeks there's more potential for disaster than others. Last week the secondary was ripe for the picking, to borrow a phrase from Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt, but Samuel and Co. turned the tables.
But having conquered Manning, the Patriots aren't about to believe they can easily defend Roethlisberger.
"We approach him no different than anybody else," claimed Samuel. "He's a rookie, but he doesn't play like a rookie. He led his team this far, you know what I'm saying? We just can't say, `Well, he's a rookie, let's go after him.' What impressed me a lot is the way he leads his team. He stays confident and he doesn't get sidestepped.
"I'm approaching it as if it's the biggest game of my life. I don't put pressure on myself. I just put the pressure aside and play with confidence."
From nickel corner, to starter, to No. 1.
"I'm not amazed by that because we're all competitors," he said. "I'm not amazed."
The football world might disagree.