He’s a safety linchpin

Meriweather has secondary in synch

By Albert R. Breer
Globe Staff / October 26, 2009

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LONDON - Opportunities may have slipped from Brandon Meriweather’s grasp through the first six weeks of the season. But that hardly meant the Patriots safety was going to throw a party after he finally cashed in during yesterday’s blowout of the Buccaneers.

Meriweather had half as many interceptions here (2) as over the first 38 games of his career. One of them went for a touchdown, breaking the seal on a runaway win for New England. And yet he scoffed at the idea that this was some sort of breakthrough performance.

“I’m still a long way off,’’ he said.

Good luck telling that to the Buccaneers. Meriweather didn’t waste any time taking the wind from a young Tampa Bay team’s sails. Five plays into the first possession of the game, on third and 4, Meriweather recognized a play the Buccaneers ran last week against Carolina. Receiver Sammie Stroughter sat down in what he thought was a dead spot in the Patriots’ zone defense.

Meriweather quickly diagnosed it, and got such a good break on the ball that he didn’t break stride after catching it at the Buccaneers’ 39-yard line, waltzing to the end zone for his first career touchdown.

“Coach put us in a great position,’’ said Meriweather, “and the receiver sat down, and the quarterback and receiver, I think, were on two different pages. And he just happened to throw it to me.’’

Meriweather said he got a hint by watching quarterback Josh Johnson’s eyes move to Stroughter, but he had to remain disciplined. “You’re playing against Tom Brady or Peyton [Manning], you might read the wrong thing,’’ said Meriweather. “You can’t just go by that.’’

On his second pick, which came on the Buccaneers’ next possession, it was pretty clear that it wasn’t Manning or Brady piloting the Tampa Bay offense. Johnson threw the ball into traffic, and Meriweather got both his hands on it, batting it up, then collecting the rebound before heading upfield with a convoy of blockers.

Meriweather took that one 31 yards. That gave him 70 return yards on the day or, if you want to look at it differently, more yards off Johnson throws than any Tampa Bay receiver.

All of that also represented, perhaps, the biggest game of his career.

Meriweather had been close. He had two plays on balls against Baltimore that, had he gotten a better jump, might have been interceptions. He forced a fumble last week against Tennessee, and also was the first player to hit Leodis McKelvin in the opener, when Brandon McGowan forced the fumble that turned the game.

But Meriweather will tell you that he doesn’t look back fondly on those moments.

“To be honest, I feel like close isn’t good enough,’’ he said. “We were close to doing a lot of things. But if you’re not doing it, it’s not good enough. So I don’t feel like I was close. I just wasn’t reading stuff right and I had to do a lot of stuff faster.

“The difference today is I was playing within the defense. I was being myself, but I was playing within the defense.’’

That has allowed Meriweather to play faster, which can be the difference between simply defending a pass and the kind of game-changing interceptions on which the elite safeties in the league make their mark.

“Brandon’s had a real good year for us,’’ said coach Bill Belichick. “From the beginning of training camp he’s really been a leader for us back in the secondary, making calls, making adjustments, sometimes taking harder responsibilities with the safeties.

“Brandon stepped up with some huge plays. And those are the plays he’s capable of making. And he’s been around those. And today they fell for him. But he’s a good player for us, and he makes plays that don’t show up on the stat sheet.’’

So now that he’s had a day where they did, Meriweather says the bar won’t be raised.

“The level of expectation? I don’t know, because to be honest, my level of expectation is already through the roof,’’ Meriweather said. “I expect myself to be great every day. Not good here, good there, great here, great there - I expect to be great every day.’’

On this day at least, he was.

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