Monday will be showtime for Patriots secondary

By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / September 11, 2009

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FOXBOROUGH - If it’s up to the Patriots’ secondary, Monday night’s season opener against the Bills won’t turn into an on-field edition of the “The T.O. Show,’’ Buffalo wide receiver Terrell Owens’s revealing and regrettable foray into reality television.

The reality for the retooled secondary is that Owens and Lee Evans are a pair of big-play receivers who are going to test an area that was probably the Patriots’ biggest weakness in 2008. New England’s secondary ranked second to last in the NFL in touchdown passes allowed with 27 and pass plays of more than 40 yards allowed with 12.

To remedy the problem, Patriots coach Bill Belichick brought in veteran cornerbacks Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs to replace Deltha O’Neal and Ellis Hobbs. He also used a second-round pick on Darius Butler, a year after he used second- and fourth-round picks on corners Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite, respectively.

The new-look secondary has bonded fast on and off the field, but knows what it is up against in Owens, who leads the NFL in touchdown receptions since 2000 with 109, and Evans, who is the only player to average more than 15 yards per reception in each of the last five seasons.

“It’s definitely a big challenge, and I think everybody is up for it,’’ said Bodden, who has taken over the right cornerback spot. “It’s always great to play against great receivers. It really shows you what kind of secondary you are. It’s good that it’s the first game, get it out the way and just move on.’’

Perhaps aware of the presence in his division of the 6-foot-3-inch, 224-pound Owens, who trails only Jerry Rice in career touchdown receptions, Belichick brought in bigger corners in the 6-1, 193-pound Bodden and the 6-foot, 204-pound Springs.

“Shawn is one of those big, physical corners, one of the best in the league,’’ said Owens, who has been in the same division with Springs since 2002. “If I have to think of good to great corners across the league, he’s definitely one of those guys. Obviously, he’s following me across the league.

“I think Belichick knew with me coming to the Bills that he had to find somebody to check me, and he went out and acquired him.’’

Bodden doesn’t have a history with Owens - he faced T.O. once in Cleveland when he was still primarily a special teams player - but with the Browns, he was matched up against players such as Randy Moss and Chad Ochocinco and held his own.

It’s not a coincidence that the Patriots played more man press coverage during the preseason. The key to slowing down receivers like Owens and Evans is to keep them off-balance. One way to do that is to get them worried about being jammed off the line and knocked off their route. Both Buffalo receivers are physical enough to brush off the jams of smaller corners.

Usually, the Patriots have just double-teamed Evans to keep him from burning them, but with Owens, who usually demands a double team or at least coverage rolled to his side in the form of a safety, that is not possible. Plus, the Bills have a slippery slot receiver in Josh Reed, who had 56 catches for a career-high 597 yards last season.

Owens is expecting Belichick to have some creative schemes up his sleeve to help the secondary slow down Buffalo’s no-huddle attack.

“Obviously, he has some new wrinkles,’’ said Owens. “I’m pretty sure he had a lot of time to think about how he’s going to contain myself, Lee, look at Josh in the slot.

“Obviously, this team certainly relies on its front six, so we’re going to present some challenges for their defense, just as they’re going to present some challenges for us scheme-wise.’’

But no amount of scheming can substitute for talent. With Wilhite, who took over at left cornerback for the final four games last season, a year older, and the steady leadership of safeties Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders, in addition to the new corners, on paper the Patriots have a better secondary than the susceptible one of 2008.

“We’ll see,’’ said Wilhite. “We did bring in some older guys that can help our younger guys. That’s always a positive thing for a young guy like me to have an older guy beside you that you can talk to about a situation.

“I’m more excited to go out and see what our unit has got to bring to the table.’’

The members of the Patriots’ secondary and the defense as a whole are aware that people are doubting them, saying the Patriots will have to rely on their prolific offense to win games.

Being the primary question mark is more motivation for the secondary than anything that has come out of the mouth of the brutally honest Owens.

“You got to take it personally if people think that there is a question mark beside us, but come Game 1 we’ll let our game speak,’’ said Bodden.

“Everybody is excited. We’re definitely excited just to go out there and put it on film and let everybody see what kind of secondary we want to be this year.’’

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