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Banged up secondary soldiering on - The Sun Chronicle : Patriots

Banged up secondary soldiering on

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Posted: Saturday, December 14, 2013 12:00 am

FOXBORO - It's tough to envision a 10-3 football team having a "plight" to worry about.

But in the case of the New England Patriots, it's fair to suggest that they have more than one plight to be considered as they enter the final three weeks of the regular season.

The offense, which has struggled mightily to get on track in its most recent games, now must proceed without the formidable presence of tight end Rob Gronkowski, lost for the rest of the year with a severe right knee injury.

And defensively, the Patriots have been soldiering on without Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly and Jerod Mayo for most of the season - and a week doesn't go by without another member of the unit being listed on the weekly injury reports.

On Friday, two days before the Patriots' visit to Sun Life Stadium to play the Miami Dolphins (1 p.m.; Ch. 4, 12), four members of the Patriots' secondary were listed on the report - Kyle Arrington (groin) and Alfonzo Dennard (knee, shoulder) as questionable, and Steve Gregory (thumb) and Aqib Talib (hip) as probable.

They will probably all make it to the field, but at less than 100 percent, they have to find a way to overcome their shortcomings if they're going to fend off the challenge from the dangerous Miami receiving corps.

"It's just work," Talib said earlier in the week. "The preparation makes up for a lot of stuff. You lose those bodies, man, it just makes you have to work harder in the classroom, more guys have to step in and learn their stuff at a fast rate. They have to just hop right in and learn it and count on the guys around them to help them out, and if they're wrong, you've got to make them right."

The Patriots can clinch the AFC East title by defeating or tying the Dolphins, but Miami needs to prevail to keep their playoff hopes alive.

"It's football, man," Talib said. "I mean, whether your back's against the wall or you're undefeated, you're going to come out to win the game. So, we're going to prepare to win the game as we normally do, no matter who we play. That's how we are going to prepare for the week and that's how we are going to come out and play."

Talib will probably be paired up against Brian Hartline, Miami's leading receiver with 67 catches for 855 yards. Hartline isn't often included in the list of the league's so-called "elite" receivers, but his productivity should earn him a spot there eventually.

"I think he plays at one speed," Talib said. "He runs his slants, his fades, his comebacks - he gives the same speed, and then he does everything off that same speed. There are a lot of guys when they run their comebacks, they run slow outside and then run the comeback, or you know when they're running that fade because they're running their fastest when they release. I think he does a great job of disguising his routes by playing at one speed."

Charles Clay has also made an impact in the Miami offense with 60 catches for 678 yards - somewhat sneaky yards, Talib said.

"It's tricky because they have weapons on the outside," he said. "They have a speed guy like (Mike) Wallace on the outside. They have a great route runner and a speedy guy like Hartline. Both of those guys are on the outside, and then you have him on the inside. He tends to get less attention, but you see what happens when he gets less attention. So, he definitely demands more attention."

Wallace was supposed to be the big free-agency impact player, but although he has just 58 catches, he's gained 762 yards with them.

"When you have a guy that can run like that, man, that opens up all the other routes for you because you have to respect that deep ball," Talib said.

Tying it all together is the steadily improving Ryan Tannehill at quarterback.

"He's working, man, and you can definitely see the improvements with them winning four of the last six games," Talib said. "You can just see it. You saw it last year, you see it this year. So that's how we view him, as a quarterback on the up, on the rise. He improves every week."

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