When Bill Belichickcalled timeout during the latter moments of the fourth quarter of last Sunday's 23-16 win over the visiting St. Louis Rams, it wasn't to give his tired defense a blow. Instead, it was to pass out nametags for the members of his secondary.
"We were just taking names there in the fourth quarter," Belichick said. "Seeing who was available and who we could put in and 'if he went there, someone else would go here' and 'he knows this' and 'he can do that.' It was definitely a scramble. But those things happen from time to time and that's why in training camp you play guys in different spots and make them learn different positions."
The Patriots finished the Rams game with a few players that are barely old enough to participate in next week's election. Deltha O'Nealwas banged up early and sat out most of the game with a head injury. But when Ellis Hobbsinjured his shoulder defending a deep pass midway through the fourth quarter and Mike Richardsongot banged up covering a kick after the Patriots go-ahead touchdown, Belichick had to ask O'Neal to go back in the game.
He joined rookies Jonathan WilhiteandTerrence Wheatley, second-year player Brandon Meriweather, newly activated safety Antwain Spannand James Sandersin a secondary that somehow managed to keep Marc Bulgerand the Rams from tying the game.
Now the question is, can they do it again? That might be asking a lot of such an inexperienced group, especially since the Patriots hit the road for a tilt in Indianapolis, a place that, despite the Colts recent struggles, figures to be conducive to throwing the football. Even Belichick wasn't certain of what to expect.
"I don't know if I am ready for them," Belichick said. "We will find out on Sunday night. All the players that are on the team we have confidence in and confidence to put them in the game or they wouldn't be here and wouldn't be activated. That answers that question.
"Are they ready? Every week you find out. Do we have confidence to put them in there? Absolutely, that's why they are here."
Despite some inconsistency thus far in 2008, Indy's passing attack can be lethal. Peyton Manninghas yet to hit his stride this year but he remains one of the best quarterbacks in football. He has a variety of options to choose from with Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrisonand Anthony Gonzalezon the outside and tight end Dallas Clarkcrusing between the hash marks.
The Colts also could get Joseph Addaiback. Addai missed the last two games with a hamstring injury and his absence has hurt. Indy's running game hasn't been effective all season, but Addai also contributes in the passing game much more than his backup Dominic Rhodesdoes.
All of these pieces will put a strain on a Patriots secondary that hasn't always looked strong even when at full strength.
"Whoever is called upon to play, they got to be ready to play and ready to play at a high level," Sanders said. "Going down there in Indy, they're going to have the place rocking and Peyton is going to be amped like he always is to play us."
Hobbs was not present during the media portion of practice on Wednesday. On Monday he said his shoulder good and that he expected to be ready on Sunday. If he's not, it could put more pressure on Richardson, Wheatley and Wilhite. Richardson was back on the practice field Wednesday while Wheatley and Wilhite were among the group that finished off the Rams game.
Wilhite has received more playing time thus far, working almost exclusively out of the slot. The fourth-round pick out of Auburn says he's ready for whatever comes his way in Indy.
"As a backup you always have to have your mind in the game in this league," Wilhite said. "You always have to be ready to go. That's the price you have to pay. There are guys that have been here for a while and you just have to wait your turn. I like the way it's being handled because I get to learn from some guys that have already done it. That's a big help."
"Peyton Manning is a guy I've been watching since before I ever thought about playing in the NFL. I know he's good and as far as the DBs, whoever's thrown out there will have to know what to do and be ready to play."
Manning's production has dipped dramatically in 2008. He missed the entire preseason recovering from an infected bursa sac in his knee and his play was rusty throughout the first two months. Not coincidentally, the Colts sit at 3-4 entering the game and Manning has 10 touchdowns but nine interceptions to go with them. Still, the Patriots kids in the secondary are experienced enough to know that Manning is a different breed.
"They're explosive. They're a team that can score from anywhere on the field," said Wheatley, the team's second-round pick out of Colorado. "You definitely have to be conscious of not doing the same things over and over again. You definitely get a chance to go against one of the best passers in the game. It's definitely a challenge."