Sanders is ready, willing, and able
FOXBOROUGH - Safety James Sanders doesn’t try to predict the Patriots lineup these days. Even after five years in New England, Sanders assumes nothing.
Entering this season, Sanders thought he would be a consistent contributor in the secondary. He started 15 games in 2007 and 14 in 2008. He signed a three-year deal worth $9 million before this season.
But after starting the season opener, Sanders was getting fewer and fewer reps, without explanation. Most of his work came on special teams. He didn’t return to the starting lineup until Dec. 13 against Carolina.
Assumptions had to be replaced with patience.
“I’m not going to say it wasn’t a frustrating time for me because it definitely was,’’ Sanders said. “Any time you come into a season and you think you’re going to be the guy, and for whatever reason it doesn’t work out that way, and you don’t know why, of course it’s going to be frustrating. But I have no control over that.’’
When Sanders returned as a starter, he was joined by veteran cornerback Shawn Springs, who also had been benched for a few games. Sanders had a season-high seven tackles against the Panthers. Last week against Jacksonville, a Sanders tackle stopped the Jaguars from picking up a critical first down on fourth and 1 in the first quarter. Later he put a hit on tight end Marcedes Lewis that knocked Lewis out of the game.
Sanders could be seen making plays and also was heard by his teammates, pointing out assignments and helping to keep everyone in position.
“James is one of the smartest players I’ve been around,’’ said linebacker Jerod Mayo, a defensive captain. “You know, coming in as a rookie last year, he’s really helped me and helped some of the guys make some of the checks out there on the field. So any time you have a veteran that’s been in the system for a long time, it’s huge.’’
That respect is what drew some of Sanders’s teammates to him for advice even though he wasn’t playing. The questions didn’t bother Sanders. Instead he remembered his rookie season, when players such as Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison, and Mike Vrabel answered his questions and encouraged him.
“We had a lot of guys I could just sit back and learn the game from and ask them and pick their brain if I had questions,’’ Sanders said. “I felt like that made me a better player over the last couple of years, and hopefully I can relay some of that information to some of the younger guys as well as asking guys like Junior [Seau] and Adalius [Thomas], Shawn when I still have questions.
“You can learn something new each and every day being here.’’
Sanders was so baffled by his lack of playing time after the opener that he eventually asked defensive coordinator Dean Pees why he was out.
“He just told me it wasn’t nothing I did - that the call was made and there was nothing I could do about it,’’ Sanders said. “The only thing I could do was continue to work hard and continue to keep trying to become a better player, and I feel like that’s what I’ve done each and every year in this league and that’s what I want to continue to do.’’
Waiting for a chance is nothing new for Sanders. In the 2005 draft, the Patriots didn’t take him until the second day, in the fourth round. They had taken Sanders’s teammate at Fresno State, Logan Mankins, the day before in the first round.
As the oldest of six kids, Sanders already had learned to be patient.
When faced with the challenges of this season, Sanders said it was important for him to handle the situation professionally and maturely.
“You can’t always have things the way you like it, but the thing you can control is your attitude and the way you approach things, and make sure you’re ready when your opportunity comes,’’ he said.
He turned his focus to special teams, and continued to offer advice.
“I still talked to a lot of guys even when I wasn’t playing and let them know what I see,’’ said Sanders, “or if they’re down about their role on the team, just keeping them positive and keeping their mind into it, because you never know.
“When your number is called, we all have to be prepared.’’
But at times, the pep talks he gave to his teammates didn’t always work for him. Every game he was out was one he wanted to be in.
“You want to be out there and help the team as much as possible when you’ve been out there and been through a lot of battles with the guys on this team, but all I can do is what I’m asked to do at the time,’’ Sanders said. “It wasn’t my time to play, and they came to me now and I’m getting my chance and I’m trying to make the most of it.’’
Sanders has 29 tackles and has forced and recovered a fumble. Today’s game against the Texans may be the toughest challenge of the season for the Patriots secondary against the tandem of quarterback Matt Schaub and receiver Andre Johnson.
Sanders said he would like to be out there. He has prepared all week, but he knows he can’t assume he will play.
“You could get reps and play and get reps and not play,’’ he said. “You never know. You just have to be ready.’’