Patriots' secondary one of their best

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Former New England Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson was back in town Sunday as part of the team's celebration of its three-time Super Bowl championship players. In many ways, it felt like he was living a déjà vu after watching the team's 43-21 dismantling of Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.

"Talking to fans, talking to players, we all said the same thing, 'It reminds you of the old days, doesn't it?'" Johnson relayed. "The way that secondary and the entire defense confused, frustrated and owned space up in Peyton [Manning]'s head, it was reminiscent of the old teams I played on. That was great to see; Bill Belichick and his staff did so many things in the secondary to keep him confused."

Johnson played on the 2003 Patriots defense that had arguably the best secondary Belichick has fielded in his 15 years as Patriots coach. Ty Law and Tyrone Poole were the cornerbacks with Rodney Harrison and Eugene Wilson at safety.

Could the 2014 secondary ultimately challenge that group for best of the bunch?

A few weeks ago, when the Patriots were struggling to beat a New York Jets team at home while losing the time-of-possession battle 40:54 to 19:06, it would have been a preposterous question to ask.

So just as we were preaching patience at that time not to judge the Patriots' defense, we'll do the same here. Two excellent performances aren't enough to make a definitive declaration, but Johnson himself allowed that they could very well be the springboard to bigger things ahead.

To him, it starts with cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner.

"They are two very physical cornerbacks who set the tone and know the formula -- you beat guys up at the line of scrimmage and throw off their timing. This secondary could definitely rival those teams by being that physical," Johnson said.

"When you play like that against the Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning, so much about the NFL is confidence. That gives them a lot of it. They were so dominant that they can use that performance to build momentum moving forward. I think it can propel them during the season."

While time will tell if this is the best secondary in Belichick's time as coach, a safer declaration is to point to it as the deepest. In today's NFL, with all the spread packages, it has to be.

Six cornerbacks all have chipped in -- Revis, Browner, top slot man Kyle Arrington, rookie Malcolm Butler, second-year player Logan Ryan and third-year veteran Alfonzo Dennard. Meanwhile, Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung start at safety, but Duron Harmon, Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner all are part of sub packages, which the Patriots have played 67 percent of the snaps.

So let's match it up with the 2003 group.

Revis is this year's version of the '03 Ty Law. That's a good comparable, even if Law played more zone and both are top-of-the-line talents who regularly draw the opponent's top player.

At the other corner spot, Browner against Poole is about as different as it gets. Poole (5-foot-8, 190 pounds) was smaller and quicker, while Browner (6-4, 221) brings a physical edge. Tough comparison there.

At free safety, McCourty gets the edge over then-rookie Eugene Wilson. Both converted corners with good range, McCourty is a cut above with his leadership and calming presence.

At the other safety spot, Chung has been playing at a high level, but there's only one Rodney Harrison. That gives '03 the edge, as Harrison's knack as a blitzer was part of his excellence. Those who played with him noted that the tricks he played on quarterbacks were unlike anything they had previously seen.

Veteran defensive back Otis Smith, whose final stint with the Patriots came from 2000-02, was back in town Oct. 16 as part of Law's halftime ceremony, and much like Johnson, he saw similarities between the current Patriots secondary and the units he was part of.

"They're starting to work it out where they have one of the better 1-2 cornerback tandems in the league," he said. "Those two help the safeties out a lot because they can go 1-on-1 and the safeties don't have to lean one way or the other. That makes things a lot easier.

"When I was there, Ty and I would handle the outside positions at corner and we had two physical safeties in Lawyer Milloy and Tebucky Jones. That worked out well, and we tried to get our hands on receivers, disrupting the timing of the offense."

That was another good Patriots secondary, one of the best of Belichick's bunch.

Where 2014 ultimately ranks is yet to be determined, but if the last two games are any indication, this deeper-than-any-other group has a chance to end up on top.