Meriweather an all-around force for Patriots

Posted by ESPN.com Tim Graham

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Brandon Meriweather's eyes widened when his 2008 statistics were repeated within context.

In looking at where he ranked among his teammates in the various categories, it can be argued sincerely that Meriweather had the best season of any New England Patriots defender.

He didn't become their starting strong safety until Week 8, yet he led the Patriots in interceptions and takeaways, made more tackles than Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel and recorded as many sacks as Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren.

"I didn't know all that," Meriweather said with a beaming smile.

If Meriweather didn't realize just how impressively he performed last year, then you can't blame the rest of the football world for overlooking him. While everybody raved about rookie linebacker Jerod Mayo and fretted over myriad injuries, Meriweather quietly put together a superb sophomore season.

Folks will start to notice. With veteran Rodney Harrison retired to the broadcast booth, Meriweather has emerged as one of New England's defensive leaders in his third NFL season. Add his ability to make a game-changing impact in multiple ways, and you'll see why we made Meriweather our choice as the AFC East's Emerging Star for 2009.

"It's all there," Scouts Inc. analyst Matt Williamson said. "He's ready to blossom and be a player."

Meriweather led all Patriots defensive backs in stops and finished second overall with 57 solo tackles. His 22 assists placed him third in total tackles behind Mayo, the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year, and Wilfork, an elite 3-4 nose tackle.

Meriweather also snared a team-high four interceptions and tied for the lead with two forced fumbles. He was second to cornerback Ellis Hobbs in passes defensed. Meriweather added two sacks. His 11 special-teams tackles ranked third.

He was one of only four defensive backs last year with at least two interceptions, two sacks and two forced fumbles. The others were Adrian Wilson, Antoine Winfield and Quintin Mikell. Wilson and Winfield went to the Pro Bowl.

"I want to be one of [those] safeties that you don't have to take off the field for nothing, not for special teams, and if I could I'd play offense," Meriweather said. "I'm just trying to be an all-around player.

"I envision myself to be a smart player, instinctual, an all-around athlete. I don't want to be just a safety. I want to be known as a cover safety, a deep safety. I want to be known as a safety that can do a little bit of everything."

Patriots coach Bill Belichick has been pleased with Meriweather's development. For the first time, Meriweather went into training camp as the starter and didn't disappoint.

"Each year he's taken a jump in the offseason and then through the course of the year, and then another jump the next offseason and through the practice sessions in the spring," Belichick said. "In training camp he's a guy that's improved pretty steadily, as I said, with a couple big offseason jumps.

"He's smart, works hard and he's really kind of starting to quarterback the secondary now. He and [free safety] James [Sanders] both do a good job of communication back there and getting everybody on the same page. He's had a very productive camp for us this year."

Meriweather should thrive with the Patriots in 2009 not only because he's another year wiser, but also because situations probably will be in the defense's favor more often than not.

With quarterback Tom Brady returning to a potent offense that's deep at running back, receiver and tight end and features three Pro Bowl linemen, the Patriots should be playing with a lead frequently.

"He can make more plays on the ball, get more interceptions," Williamson said. "He's shown an ability to get his hands on the ball already.

"You can't get away from the physical attributes that he has. He's fast. He's fluid. He has good size. He can be in the box and throw his body around. He has the ability to play man against tight ends or slot receiver at the line.

"And he's not afraid at all to come up and hit. He can be an intimidator over the middle in the passing game."

The Patriots drafted Meriweather 24th overall two years ago out of the University of Miami. He had the talent to be selected much higher.

Some teams rated him the No. 2 safety in the draft. Others projected him as a big cornerback because
of his agility and coverage skills. He was a ferocious hitter, garnering the nicknames "Hit Stick" and "B-Ware." He left Miami as its career leader among safeties with 182 solo tackles. Ed Reed and Sean Taylor were Hurricanes, too.

But a pair of incidents hurt Meriweather's stock and deleted him from a few teams' draft boards. He was the fourth safety and seventh defensive back taken.

Meriweather was involved in a shooting incident in July 2006, firing three bullets at an unidentified assailant who had shot his Hurricanes teammate, Willie Cooper. No charges were filed because Meriweather was defending himself and the handgun was registered.

Three months later, Meriweather stomped opposing players with his cleats during the infamous Miami-Florida International brawl.

But after interviewing Meriweather before the draft and with the testimony of Hurricanes coaches Randy Shannon and Larry Coker, the character-conscious Patriots didn't detect a significant risk and made him their first pick.

Meriweather didn't start as a rookie. He made his mark on special teams with 18 tackles, but had trouble getting on the field defensively. He had 11 games with one or zero defensive tackles.

"What's difficult about it is the expectations," Meriweather said of the NFL transition. "You expect and the coaches expect you to be almost perfect. That's why people say our system is difficult. We have good coaches that expect good things out of you. When you put so much pressure on yourself, it gets hard."

Meriweather got his shot last season when Harrison suffered a torn quadriceps in Week 7. The injury ended Harrison's season, and the way Meriweather played ended Harrison's career.

Meriweather's progress was illustrated by the coaching staff's belief in him late in the season. Both of his sacks happened in December. His first was a critical strip sack of Seneca Wallace to seal a Week 14 victory over the Seattle Seahawks.

"I prefer to get an interception to a sack, but whenever you get a chance to blitz, that says something," Meriweather said. "That says your coaches trust the rest of the players around you, trusts your timing and ability to get to the quarterback. That shows your coaches have faith in you."

As an emerging leader in the secondary, he knows he must play even better this year.

"The more that's given, the more's expected," Meriweather said.

In that vein, he intends to open up as he gets more secure in his role.

For example, he thinks it's about time to break out the Hit Stick again after a couple of seasons of keeping it stashed while he learned the NFL game.

"He's still alive," Meriweather said. "He's been in the background, trying to adjust and learn the system and learn the NFL level and how to be a pro.

"He's been hiding a little bit, but he's coming back soon. Real soon."