Injury-plagued secondary will be tested by Manning

Updated: January 9, 2005, 7:11 PM ET
Associated Press

FOXBORO, Mass. -- The vacation is over for the New England Patriots.

After four days off, they return Monday to prepare for a huge challenge -- stopping record-setting Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts with a patchwork secondary.

Manning set an NFL record with 49 touchdown passes in the regular season and started the postseason with 457 yards and four touchdown passes in Sunday's 49-24 win over the Denver Broncos.

The Colts earned a return trip to Foxboro, where they lost to the Patriots 27-24 on opening night and 24-14 in last season's AFC championship game.

Four-time Pro Bowl selection Ty Law intercepted Manning three times in the playoff game, but he and New England's other starting cornerback, Tyrone Poole, are on injured reserve and out of the playoffs.

"You wish they were there, but if they're not you trust the next guy that's coming in," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said before the Patriots' four-day break began last Thursday.

The replacements have done enough to help the Patriots to their second straight 14-2 season. But inexperience has forced coach Bill Belichick and his other defensive backs to make adjustments.

At times, strong safety Rodney Harrison played farther back than he normally would to guard against a receiver getting behind a cornerback.

"It's been a difficult year with me," Harrison said. "I've played a lot different at times this year than I played last year, but for me it's just a matter of fitting in."

Law missed the last nine games after breaking his foot. Poole missed 12 with a knee injury. In their places, the Patriots have used solid second-year pro Asante Samuel, wide receiver Troy Brown and undrafted free agents Randall Gay and Earthwind Moreland.

At times, free safety Eugene Wilson moved to cornerback and linebacker Don Davis was at free safety, a spot he never played in his other nine NFL seasons. Davis even started the last two games there.

"It's not as tough a transition as people think. I think you have to have a bit of intelligence, a bit of football savvy," Davis said. "If you're up against a faster wide receiver, you've got to (play) a little bit deeper. If a team is running the ball more, then you can kind of cheat up a little bit."

But what about a team like the Colts?

They have one of the NFL's top runners in Edgerrin James, three players who each had more than 1,000 yards receiving _ Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley _ and tight end targets Marcus Pollard and Dallas Clark.

There's only so much the linebackers can do to help the defensive backs.

"Maybe if I think that's going to be a problem I've got to drop back a little bit deeper to help them in coverage and I forget about the inside routes," Bruschi said. "I can't do that."

Belichick and his staff do an outstanding job of devising schemes to overcome weaknesses. The Patriots have beaten Indianapolis in their last eight matchups in Foxboro, and Manning is 2-9 against them.

But they've never faced a Colts offense as good as this one, and their pass rush could be hampered if Richard Seymour, who missed the last regular-season game with a knee injury, is sidelined or subpar.

Even if Seymour is at full strength, Manning could pick apart defensive backs who are surprised they've played so much.

"I'm very amazed," Davis said. "We went from Ty Law, from Tyrone Poole to free agents and linebackers and a wide receiver so it was kind of a joke around here, but it's fun. Guys are doing good. It's indicative of the good coaching that's going on around here and it's also good players."

The Patriots already have beaten strong offensive teams with productive quarterbacks -- St. Louis with Marc Bulger and Kansas City with Trent Green.

But Manning is the best.

"It's just another test," Davis said before his brief vacation. "Bring it on and let's just see where it goes. We've been doing good so far."

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press