By Mary Paoletti
FOXBORO -- Try to find someone who predicted New England to be 11-2 through fourteen weeks. Won't be easy.
Perceived weakness in the secondary was just one reason why external expectations weren't high for this Patriots team. Hell, it wasn't speculation, it was written in the player biographies. Youth. Inexperience. Not seasoned enough to hold that last line of defense.
Especially when 29-year old Leigh Bodden hit the season-ending IR list in late August and it looked as if sophomore Darius Butler would start at corner across from freshman Devin McCourty. Next on the depth chart came a pair of third-year players, Jonathan Wilhite and Terrence Wheatley.
What about Kyle Arrington?
Arrington wasn't any older than most of his secondary partners -- this is his third year in the NFL -- but he was even more unseasoned. An undrafted free agent, he bounced from the Eagles' practice squad to the Bucs' practice squad to the Patriots' practice squad and got into nine games, total, in 2008 and '09. He was seen as a special teamer, at best.
My, how things have changed.
Butler fell off the map. Wilhite's body refused tocooperate with his or the team's wishes and, just Wednesday, he was placed on IR. Wheatley (or what's left of him) is in Jacksonville.
Arrington? He's first on the depth chart at left corner for those 11-2 New England Patriots.
And it's not a case of any old port in a storm. He's busted his tail to earn the job.
"He's a great athlete,'' teammate Rob Ninkovich said before practice on Wednesday. "He's got great skills as a corner. He just needed a chance. Sometimes, being a free agent, it takes a while for you to get that chance. But he's made the best of his opportunities.''
Coach Bill Belichick said the same about Arrington seizing the moment.
"Kyle works hard," said Belichick. "He did a good job for us last year on special teams; lead in tackles. He has been very productive. He's got good speed, he's tough, he tackles well, he's aggressive. He's gotten an opportunity and he's done a good job taking advantage of it."
He had to. Arrington knows he wasn't supposed to be a starter. The progression of afterthought to first-string has involved extreme discipline and commitment from Arrington, and he's given his all.
"I've had more dedication off the field, especially in the film room and being at home," he said. "Just paying more attention to details, a higher concentration level during practice. This is a tremendous opportunity that not everybody gets and I'm just trying to take more advantage of it.''
There's that word again: Opportunity. People use it when talking about the 24-year old almost as much as he says it himself. One thing, though: Don't confuse it for luck. When a person delivers after being given a chance, it's not because Fate is a Patriots fan or has a soft spot for Hofstra alumni like Arrington.
It's because of things like Bullet Squats.
Imagine this, his leg exercise of choice: The 5-foot-10 (a generous listing), 196-pounder stands on a bench with one foot. He holds dumbbells in each hand. Does 10 reps. Arrington was working with 40 pounds in each hand last week, 60 pounds in each hand during the offseason.
It's punishing, but it's the reason he has 2.9 percent body fat. It's why Belichick points specifically to the undersized Arrington's strength. And it's also why the guy is breaking up passes to 6-foot-3 Braylon Edwards on Monday Night Football instead of getting pushed around.
"He's very strong for his size, he's a strong guy,'' Ninkovich said. "He can rush -- he's been rushing for us. He's got a great center of gravity where he can bend the corner."
There have been results. New England ranks 27th in defense this season, but that number hides a few important others. The secondary is still making plays out there. Opponent passing yardage is improved significantly this season since Week 10:
NET PASSING YARDS
QB RATINGat Steelers
New England's 20 interceptions are second-best in the NFL and is the best total for a Patriots defense since 2007 (19). Arrington has zero, but when quarterbacks have chosen to throw to the other side McCourty has nabbed 6. And tackles? Arrington's 48 are the fourth highest tally on the team.
No surprise McCourty is the one getting big press. His tremendous play week-in and week-out has thrust him into the national spotlight in the Defensive Rookie of the Year conversation. The attention given to Arrington is a pittance by contrast.
It doesn't bother him, though. He's just happy for the playing time.
"He's kind of a quiet guy,'' Ninkovich said. "He's not going to say too much but he's very competitive on the field. A quiet personality but he's aggressive in a sense of, when he's on the field, he's a different person."
When told that his teammate went on to call him "quietly" competitive, Arrington smiled.
"That's perfect. I'm not the obviously most vocal person and everyone knows that. So, quietly competitive . . . that's a good way to put that.''
He paused for a moment. Then he found his focus and smiled again.
"But I will compete."