For the second time in less than two months New England will be forced to move forward without one of its captains. While the offense has now evolved through nearly six full games following Tom Brady'sseason-ending knee injury, its counterparts on defense will now have to proceed with life without safety Rodney Harrison.
The Patriots placed the 15-year veteran on injured reserve on Wednesday with a thigh injury (reportedly a torn quadriceps), officially ending the hard-hitting safety's season and bringing doubt to his future in the NFL. It also forces his teammates to once again circle the wagons and move past injury to a key cog in the New England machine.
"I think it's certainly a big blow," fellow defensive captain Mike Vrabel said. "I think that what he brings weekly and every day to this locker room and this team it'll be missed. You can't certainly replace it. You can't go out and find someone. There's nobody out there like that. Obviously everybody sees what he does in the games. It's just what he does in practice and the way he prepares and the way he works and pushes guys."
Apparently Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick and Vice President of Player Personnel Scott Pioli agreed with Vrabel in terms of looking to replace the two-time Pro Bowler. In announcing the Harrison move to IR the team also promoted third-year safety Antwain Spann from the practice squad to the active roster, choosing to fill the void from within rather than looking to the open market for someone like John Lynch. Lynch spent time with the team during the preseason but was cut just before the regular season and has remained out of football since.
"Our roster is full," Belichick responded quickly when asked if Lynch would be an option. The coach seemingly had left the door open for Lynch's return when the nine-time Pro Bowler was released on Aug. 31. But despite losing Harrison that possibility didn't sound as likely on Wednesday.
"Well anybody would be an option that is not with another team," Belichick said on a follow-up Lynch query. "But that would mean we would have to make room on our roster to accommodate someone else. So potentially everyone is an option but we would have to do something."
Based on that it looks like New England will move forward with James Sanders and Brandon Meriweatheras its primary safeties. While Belichick isn't big on labeling his safeties as "free" or "strong," Sanders has been starting opposite Harrison for the two-plus seasons playing more of a free-type role. Now, the fourth-year former fourth-round pick could be pushed closer to the line of scrimmage in more of a strong safety role that would seem to better suit his skill set even if he's not exactly ready to fill his mentor's Hall of Fame-caliber shoes.
"I think we'll have to count on a lot of people to do some of the things that Rodney did," Belichick said. "Rodney had a lot of different roles for us defensively, so I'm sure there won't be any one person that will do what he did. We'll have to combine and use a number of people."
Sanders' increased time in the box would leave Meriweather to roam more of the field and put to use his improving range, athleticism and overall ball skills. He currently leads the team with three interceptions and was described coming out of the University of Miami two years ago as a safety with some cornerback-type coverage skills despite some lackluster results in coverage as a rookie.
"[He's] getting to the ball and making plays," Ellis Hobbs said of what he's seen from Meriweather. "All the opportunities that he had last year that he was missing out on as far as dropping balls or [he was] there but not making plays, he's really taking advantage of it this year. You can really see his maturity level."
Sanders and Meriweather will be backed up at this point by Spann and WR/S Ray Ventrone, although Lewis Sanders also has position flexibility. In the immediate future it's likely that Lewis Sanders and rookie Jonathan Wilhite get bumped up the defensive back depth chart as the first guys off the bench in sub packages, a role that Meriweather had joined them in previously.
More so than replacing his playing ability, the Patriots biggest challenge may be replacing Harrison's leadership, knowledge and communication skills in the secondary. New England may be better suited to do just that than in the past when Harrison went down to injury. Teammates have raved since the summer about Meriweather taking on a more vocal role when he's been on the field and Sanders brings the confidence of 28 starts under his belt to his new role as one of the leaders in the back end of the defense.
Regardless of how the exact bodies and roles play out in each week's game plan, the New England defenders know exactly what they need to do as a collective unit -- step up and move on. They've done just than in the past and it's something they plan on doing this time.
"It's tough. But it's something we are familiar with as players. It's just part of the game. He would say the same thing about anybody else," Hobbs said. "We're not going to sit here and have a pity party or anything. We enjoyed the service with us. Like I said, he's a loyal and dedicated player to the game. The way he played the game is really how all of us should play it – 100 percent all the way.
"When tragedy falls upon you we just keep on moving and realize that one person doesn't make this machine. We have to fill that spot. Whoever's filling that spot we are not asking him to go out there and make miracles. Just do your job."
That job may have been easier with Harrison in the lineup, just as it was when Brady was in the lineup on offense. But the rest of the players in the New England locker room know there's no time to think about that as there is a game to get ready for, another challenge on the horizon. Harrison may no longer be around to remind them of that, as he certainly did when any other players went down over the years, but the rest of the Patriots have been through this process before and know what's expected of them and what their fallen captain would urge them to do.
"He meant a lot for the defense. His actions on the field and off the field and speak for themselves. I don't think one word or group of words can explain what he means," Adalius Thomas said. "But just like he would want to do if he was here is prepare for the Rams. And that's what we're going to do."