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Ihedigbo emerges as leader for motley Patriots secondary

AFC Championship - Baltimore Ravens v New England Patriots

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 22: James Ihedigbo #44 of the New England Patriots celebrate after sacking Joe Flacco (not pictured) #5 of the Baltimore Ravens in the third quarter during their AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2012 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

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There is no better example of New England’s odd roster composition than in the secondary.

They have four players who have changed positions. Cornerbacks are playing safety, safeties are playing cornerback, and two wide receivers are playing both positions.

The best cornerback (Kyle Arrington) was undrafted. The leader of the group may just be a “street free agent” safety that was signed late in training camp. PFT spoke to a few Patriots players Thursday morning that said former Jets safety James Ihedigbo was the leader of the secondary.

“I definitely have taken on a leadership role. I’ve played in a lot of big games in my young career in the NFL and those guys understand that,” Ihedigbo said.

He made two straight AFC title games in New York, and now has reached the Super Bowl. Ihedigbo was known as a limited player in New York that specialized in big hits with poor coverage. He makes a physical tandem with Patrick Chung, who is probably the best player in the secondary right now. Ihedigbo says he thinks day and night of what he’s going to do in the Super Bowl.

It says a lot the Patriots are relying so heavily on Ihedigbo, a player no other team wanted. The team is also counting on rookie undrafted free agent Sterling Moore, who was cut by both the Patriots and Raiders this year while playing safety. Now he’s at cornerback.

“There was a point, especially after being cut after I started three games at safety, where I wondered if I’d be on practice squad the rest of the season,” Moore said. “You let that creep out of your mind.”

I asked him about the differences between the Raiders and the Patriots.

“Everybody’s more . . . businesslike here,” Moore said, shaking his head. “As many superstars we have on the team, they don’t act like it.”

Devin McCourty is the somewhat fallen star of the group. He made the Pro Bowl as a rookie cornerback and struggled so much this season that he’s primarily been playing safety of late. He’s taken the change in stride and points out the team has played its best football of late because they have settled in roles.

He admits that some of Bill Belichick’s moves come as a surprise.

“Yeah, because my football mind isn’t there yet. I can’t think how he thinks, but it usually works pretty well,” McCourty said.

One of the most surprising moves: Making wide receiver Julian Edelman a cornerback and using receiver Matthew Slater at safety on occasion. Edelman has grown into a cornerback the Patriots trust enough to man the slot with a Super Bowl trip on the line. His physical play has genuinely given the opposition problems.

So how will this group attack New York’s three talented wideouts?

McCourty said that limiting yards after the catch was an emphasis for Super Bowl Sunday. He doesn’t expect the Patriots to match up with the same Giants receivers all game. He expects the Patriots to mix up coverages quite a bit.

Moore said they are focusing on ball skills. All of the players said they expect the unexpected come gametime.

“We’ll see things, we change it up midgame,” Moore said.

Changing on the fly has become the norm for this Patriots secondary. It’s amazing this group plays for the team slightly favored on Super Bowl Sunday.

If they can hold up one more week, it will be even more amazing this group will be a Super Bowl-winning secondary.