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Ihedigbo rises to occasion vs. former team

Members of the Bruins remove their hockey sweaters to reveal Patriots’ jerseys yesterday. Members of the Bruins remove their hockey sweaters to reveal Patriots’ jerseys yesterday. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Shalise Manza Young and Monique Walker
Globe Staff / October 10, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH – James Ihedigbo learned just hours before his current team, the Patriots, played his former team, the Jets, that he would be getting the start at safety next to Patrick Chung.

The first thing Ihedigbo did yesterday morning was call his mother in western Massachusetts to deliver the news.

The Northampton native and UMass product was all smiles after the game as he talked about the opportunity the Patriots have given him - one he feels New York failed to do in four seasons there.

“It means so much more - a team that I played on, that said I couldn’t play for them anymore, and I had the opportunity to start [against them],’’ Ihedigbo said. “Even when guys were injured, they [the Jets] never gave me a chance to start.’’

Ihedigbo was limited almost exclusively to special-teams duty with the Jets, who signed him as an undrafted rookie in 2007.

He spent that season and part of 2008 on the practice squad before being promoted in October.

Ihedigbo played 37 games over three years for New York before being released during training camp this year; he was signed by the Patriots Aug. 19.

With Sergio Brown struggling, and Josh Barrett dealing with hamstring and thumb injuries that led to him being inactive for the game, Patriots coach Bill Belichick and de facto defensive coordinator Matt Patricia turned to Ihedigbo.

“I’m playing with great guys in the secondary - it’s a great fit,’’ he said. “It went very well. Besides a couple of plays in the red zone, it was a pretty solid performance in the back end.’’

Ihedigbo said he felt comfortable on the field, and Chung praised him for his on-field intelligence.

“He’s good. He’s a smart guy, and I’m confident with him out there, period,’’ Chung said. “He knows what he’s talking about out there and we can look at each other and make signals on the sidelines with the corners and disguise things. He’s definitely a smart guy.’’

Belichick singled out Ihedigbo’s play when asked how the defense played without Jerod Mayo, out with a sprained MCL.

“James did a great job for us today in his overall communication, and of course he was pretty familiar with the team we were playing,’’ Belichick said. “He’s a smart guy that really works hard, communicates well, and practiced well this week. I thought he did a good job when he was in there, delivered a couple big hits, and played well.’’

Said Ihedigbo, “I probably couldn’t ask for a better way [for his first start]. The team that let you go, to come back and start and stick it to them. It was a great win, a great team win, and it puts us ahead in the division chase against them.’’

Defensive lineman Shaun Ellis didn’t know how he would feel going against the team he played for during the first 11 years of his career. Ellis said he had the chance to exchange a few pleasantries with former teammates but didn’t get caught up in the emotion of the game.

“It was definitely fun,’’ Ellis said. “I just tried to focus on what I had to do for my team. I talked to the guys after the game. We’ve got to see them down the road again.’’

Ellis appeared to injure his leg in the first half but was able to return to play a significant amount of snaps the rest of the game. Ellis said he is growing more comfortable in the Patriots’ rotation and was pleased with how the team limited the Jets to 3 of 11 on third-down conversions.

“We’ve been focused on it before, but we as players put more of an emphasis on third down and getting off the field,’’ Ellis said. “We took the challenge and went out there and got it done.’’

Haynesworth back Patriots defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth, who missed the previous two games with a back injury, primarily played in sub packages yesterday and said he was waiting for the Jets to follow through on their promise to run the ball.

The Jets rushed for 97 yards on 25 carries.

“I like it,’’ Haynesworth said. “They want to run at me, that’s great.’’

Later in the game, Haynesworth had to leave the field with a cramp, which he said may have been from the two weeks of being out.

“It wasn’t anything serious at all,’’ he said.

Drought ends Sacks have been elusive for the Patriots this season, but they ended a drought that dated to Week 2 as Mark Anderson and Rob Ninkovich combined on a sack. Anderson finished with 1 1/2 sacks.

Anderson said he didn’t do anything different in preparation last week.

“It’s been what we’ve been studying for all week,’’ Anderson said. “We’re prepared. Coach Pepper [Johnson] and Bill got us ready, real ready to go in this game. And we were real prepared to go in and make plays.’’

Not so special Joe McKnight’s 88-yard kickoff return in the third quarter set up the Jets’ second touchdown, giving them the ball at the 20-yard line. Devin McCourty made the touchdown-saving tackle on the return, but New York was able to score on a pass to Jeremy Kerley three plays later. “That was bad,’’ special teams ace and cocaptain Matthew Slater said. “It wasn’t good enough. We gave up too many big plays. I take responsibility for it. I could have done things better. Fortunately, it didn’t cost us the game, but we’re better than that. They’re one of the best [special teams] groups in the league. We’ve just got to go back and watch film and make corrections. It’s unfortunate. I’m disappointed with the big play that we gave up there.’’ McKnight is averaging 52.6 yards per kickoff return in seven attempts this season . . . Yesterday’s victory was the 19th consecutive regular-season home win for the Patriots, a franchise record . . . It marked the 13th consecutive game in which the Patriots have scored 30 or more points, which is second in NFL history.

Zuri Berry and Christopher L. Gasper of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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