FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When the New England Patriots made the decision earlier this year to move forward without veteran safeties Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders, their actions suggested confidence in the young tandem of Josh Barrett and Sergio Brown.
Yet Barrett, a third-year player, and second-year man Brown had combined for a mere 379 total defensive snaps during their NFL careers (Barrett 285, Brown 94), according to data logged by analytical site Pro Football Focus. By comparison, Meriweather (952) and Sanders (819) played 1,771 total snaps for the Patriots last season alone.
While there have been some bright spots for both Brown and Barrett over the first three weeks of the season, a particularly rough weekend in Buffalo left some pundits openly grumbling about whether the Patriots made the right personnel decisions in their secondary.
Barrett and Brown have combined to play 76.4 percent of New England's defensive snaps this season, logging five starts between them. They've been part of a secondary that's been gashed for a league-worst 377 passing yards per game, and a lack of impact plays (Brown did have a nice interception against San Diego) has the pair in the spotlight after the Patriots' first loss of the season.
Say this for Barrett, even as he has lamented missed tackles against Buffalo, he has also patiently tackled every question from the media over the past 48 hours. He's not running from the criticism.
"It's a tough thing to watch, but you've got to learn from it," Barrett said. "There's a lot of coaching points [the defense can] take from it. We'll get better."
Two head-shaking, fourth-quarter plays defined Sunday for Barrett and Brown.
The first came with about 11 minutes to play with New England nursing a touchdown lead as Ryan Fitzpatrick delivered an ill-advised pass that floated right to Barrett in the New England end zone. But Brown got flagged for defensive pass interference for preventing his man from coming back to make a play on the ball, negating the pick.
It was an easy call; Brown simply showed his inexperience. On the next snap, Buffalo running back Fred Jackson barreled into the end zone, tying the game at 24, and things went from bad to worse when Drayton Florence returned a Tom Brady interception for the go-ahead touchdown on the game's next offensive play.
Later in the fourth quarter, neither safety was able to come up from his position to make a tackle on Jackson's pivotal 28-yard catch that set up Buffalo's winning field goal as time expired.
Yet again, Barrett shouldered the blame.
"Obviously, [Jackson's] play to set up that field goal was a play where I should have been there to make the tackle," he said. "I didn't, [and] it goes across the board, we've got to do a better job defensively when we need it to make sure we win those games."
It's encouraging to see a young player own up to his mistakes (especially in a locker room where veteran wide receiver Chad Ochocinco doesn't appear to want to discuss his own shortcomings). But the bottom line is Barrett and Brown must show that they've learned on the field.
Regardless of how quickly Patrick Chung, sidelined this past week with a hand injury, is able to get back on the field, the Patriots need more from their safeties. And until they get it, folks will keep whispering names like that of veteran free-agent safety Darren Sharper.
Both Brown, an undrafted free agent out of Notre Dame who didn't have a single interception during his college career, and Barrett, a seventh-round pick (220th overall) out of Arizona, faced long odds just to stick on the Patriots' roster.
But they've outlasted Meriweather, a first-round pick (24th overall) in the 2007 draft. It's not fair to judge them against the likes of a two-time Pro Bowler, but the Patriots saw something in their young safety tandem that gave them the confidence to let Meriweather go.
Now Barrett and Brown need to show the rest of us on the field.
Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.