FOXBOROUGH - Putting out recycling bins in parts of Gillette Stadium is an admirable effort by the Patriots to go "green." But the Patriots are being forced to do recycling at cornerback because some of their corners are too green.
Yesterday, the team brought back veteran cornerback Jason Webster, whom it had disposed of Aug. 26 in its first round of training camp cuts. The 5-foot-9-inch, 187-pound Webster was originally signed by the Patriots in March but was released after missing nearly a month of camp with a hamstring injury.
He had been sitting at home with his wife and kids when the Patriots called him back, opening a spot on the roster by putting rookie outside linebacker Shawn Crable on injured reserve with a shin injury, ending his season.
While health may have ultimately cost Webster a chance to make the Patriots out of training camp, it's his ally now, as New England's cornerback corps is in need of reliable reinforcements.
Rookie Terrence Wheatley, who injured a wrist against the Colts last Sunday, didn't practice yesterday and was seen in the locker room with what looked like a soft cast on his lower left arm. Starting right cornerback Ellis Hobbs is playing with a bad shoulder and had limited participa tion yesterday. Starting left cornerback Deltha O'Neal is recovering from a concussion suffered against St. Louis Oct. 26, and veteran Lewis Sanders, who also didn't practice yesterday, has missed the last two games after aggravating a hamstring injury.
Not the position you want to be in heading into a key division clash Sunday with the Buffalo Bills and their capable young quarterback, Trent Edwards.
"We're kind of struggling, but we can make it," said O'Neal. "We're only as good as our second team as a group. If we can't get it done drawing on a backup, then we're going to be in a world of trouble, believe me."
Webster, an eight-year veteran who has 11 career interceptions, is no savior for the secondary, but he's a savvy, experienced corner who can play the slot and is familiar with the Patriots' system and the Bills'. Webster signed with the Bills in 2007, but broke his forearm in Buffalo's opener last year, ending his season.
"Well, Jason has a good understanding of our system; he was with us all the way through the spring and training camp," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "So, we will plug him in there. He gives us a little bit of depth in the secondary - corner, nickel back - so we will plug him in there and see how it goes."
In the 18-15 loss to the Colts, Belichick plugged rookie Jonathan Wilhite and second-year man Mike Richardson into the slot corner, or "star" as it's known in Patriots parlance, and watched as Colts wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez scored both Indianapolis touchdowns against them.
Wilhite was picked on for the first score, a 12-yarder in the first quarter, and struggled much of the first half. He was replaced by Richardson, who didn't fare much better and was burned on a 9-yard TD toss to Gonzalez in the third quarter.
It's almost a certainty that Buffalo will look to attack a Patriots secondary that is part of a defense that has fallen from first in the NFL in pass defense last season (190.1 yards per game) to 17th this year (212.6).
Under new offensive coordinator Turk Schonert, the Bills have made a point of trying to produce big plays in the passing game. Schonert's goal is to average 8 yards per pass attempt. So far this season, Buffalo is averaging 8.05 yards, fifth best in the NFL, and is tied for fourth in pass plays of 25 yards or longer with 14.
The Patriots have surrendered 14 plays of 25 yards or longer this season, the same amount they allowed all of last season.
Still, Edwards, who has thrown three of his five interceptions (against six touchdown passes) this season in the last two games, both Buffalo losses, backpedaled quickly from the idea that the New England secondary is ripe for the picking.
"I don't see them as vulnerable at all," said Edwards. "I never really see them out of position. The guys that have hit them, the quarterbacks have made accurate, big-time throws. That's not always going to happen every Sunday.
"Hopefully, we can get a couple on them, but the thing that they benefit from is having a strong defensive line [whose] technique is sound [and] is very aggressive, and I'd say that entire defense plays to the whistle, if not beyond the whistle. That's a tough defense to go against for 60 minutes. We're expecting that on Sunday and expecting a lot of different looks from their secondary."
The Patriots are hoping the second time around Webster can help a secondary that sorely needs healthy help.
"Most of the things I remembered," said Webster. "The [defensive] coordinator [Dean Pees] and [secondary] Coach [Dom] Capers do a good job of just reiterating some things we learned in training camp, so that helped out a lot."
But there's only so much recycling you can do as an NFL coach. Sometimes you just have to work with the raw materials you're given.
"All the guys that are here, they're here for a reason," said O'Neal. "They got picked up because they have some kind of talent, and they can play football. The coaching can only help us. It can't set us backwards. We just got to prepare better for games because it's a tough stretch the last eight games that we have. We just have to prepare better."
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.