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Hawkins quells safety concerns

FOXBOROUGH -- Like most cornerbacks in defenses that feature press coverage, Artrell Hawkins is accustomed to having a single worry: the happenings on his island.

Hawkins calls it cat coverage -- ''I got this cat, you got that cat" -- the implication being it is every man for himself.

''At the corner, you're not really worried about the defensive checks. You know what you need to know, but as a corner you got the cat in front of you," Hawkins said, laughing.

But since joining the Patriots Nov. 15, Hawkins has been voted off the island and returned to the mainland.

Artrell Hawkins, longtime cornerback, should start his third game at strong safety Sunday at Buffalo. (He was placed on the injury report yesterday as questionable because of a thigh problem.)

The change from cornerback to safety is quite dramatic -- from the edge to the center; from not being involved in many defensive changes to being responsible for making calls on defensive checks; from chicken fighting with receivers outside to wrestling with lumbering tight ends inside the hashes.

''It's like going from being a righthanded hitter to being a lefthanded hitter," coach Bill Belichick said. ''Now you're seeing the game from inside out versus seeing the game from outside in. Some players can't make that transition adjustment. Some players see it better from one perspective or the other, for whatever reason."

Before signing with the Patriots, Hawkins, who has started 78 games in his eight-year career, had never taken a snap at safety in the NFL. But he has started the past two games there for New England and looks to be the answer at a position that has been the most unstable on the team.

Six players have started at the position since a season-ending injury to Rodney Harrison, who started every game at strong safety the previous two years and the first three games this season. None have played as well as Hawkins.

Unlike Harrison, who led the team in tackles, Hawkins doesn't have a lot of tackles (three per game in his starts). More importantly (and unlike the first five Harrison replacements), Hawkins hasn't been involved in a host of mixups and blown coverages that have led to touchdowns.

The Patriots have finally started to show some stability in the secondary with Hawkins joining Eugene Wilson at safety, and rookie Ellis Hobbs lining up opposite Asante Samuel at cornerback.

For a cornerback, Hawkins has looked like a decent safety.

''There are some players that if you try to switch positions with them, they're just not comfortable with it," Belichick said. ''You see a lot more backward progress, even at the position that is supposedly their main spot.

''There are other guys that play multiple positions and they kind of enjoy the newness of it, or the challenge, and they're able to transition in and out of things easily and it's not a problem at all."

Hawkins, who spent the first six years of his career with Cincinnati, is definitely in the latter category. He finds the extra classroom time with defensive coordinator Eric Mangini and assistant secondary coach Joel Collier to be stimulating.

''It's a challenge. I've kind of regained my love for the game," Hawkins said. ''Because I'm playing a new position, I have to sit down, I have to study. I'm more prepared. I have guys asking me questions now. It feels good.

''I'm learning new things in the NFL at 29, things I haven't known or paid attention to for eight years. It's a rejuvenation."

Hawkins, released by the Redskins in an injury settlement after tearing his hamstring in training camp, had no inkling he was coming here to change positions. The Patriots never mentioned playing safety when they brought Hawkins in for a workout, or when they asked him to sign at midseason.

When they told him to give it a shot, he didn't flinch.

In high school, Hawkins was a record-setting tailback in Pennsylvania. He turned down several offers to play major college football because the teams wanted to move him to the secondary. He chose the University of Cincinnati, which told him he could stay at running back.

''After being there for three weeks, my coach came to me and said, 'You can play tailback in three years or you can play [defensive back] next week,' " Hawkins said.

He took the prize behind Curtain No. 2.

''If you need me to play, I'll play," Hawkins said. ''It's all about getting onto the field, plain and simple. I'll play defensive end, if [it means] I can play.

''To still be playing, to have the opportunity to start, it's great."

In some ways, his presence has allowed the Patriots to pressure quarterbacks with more vigor. The Patriots have four solid cover men in the secondary, as Wilson played cornerback before being moved to safety as a rookie. Though Wilson and Hawkins don't have the run-stopping ability Harrison displayed, both can be physical at the point of attack and they don't miss many tackles.

At this point, Hawkins's move appears to be another clever position switch by the Patriots' coaching staff.

''That's kind of the M.O. of this team," Hawkins said. ''It's an honor to me that they would do that, that they would allow me the opportunity.

''I couldn't really ask for a better situation -- one week you're sitting watching games at home, the next week you're playing 40 snaps. You couldn't ask for anything more. It's a great team, [with] great ownership, and with a head coach who has won the big game more than once . . . more than twice."

Jerome Solomon can be reached at

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