FOXBOROUGH — Though Julian Edelman was credited with the score, the Patriots’ first touchdown of the season was delivered, in large part, by a defensive player.
As was the second.
Cornerback Kyle Arrington, an underdog-turned-success-story if ever there was one in the NFL, forced a first-quarter fumble by Bills running back C.J. Spiller well inside Buffalo territory that was recovered by Tommy Kelly. That turnover became a touchdown a little more than 40 seconds later.
In the second quarter Arrington forced another fumble, also inside Buffalo territory, recovered by Rob Ninkovich, and that also was turned into an Edelman touchdown in short order.
They were key plays in a 23-21 win for the Patriots, part of the 27-year-old cornerback’s strong start to the season.
The Patriots have played a great deal of sub-defense in their first two games, so Arrington was among the starters, at what the team calls “star” or slot cornerback. Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard were the outside corners.
The switch to slot seems to be a big part of Arrington’s spike in play; he appears more comfortable there. Though he started 12 of 16 regular-season games at right corner last year, he moved to star late in the season, after New England acquired Talib.
Devin McCourty, who served as a groomsman in Arrington’s wedding 18 months ago, believes the slot plays to his teammate’s strengths.
“You really have to get used to it, get a knack for it, and I think it really fits Kyle — he’s aggressive, really quick inside,” McCourty said.
Playing inside, he continued, as opposed to at one of the boundary cornerback spots, “A lot of it is really quickness . . . I think his quickness really helps him, and then he’s really physical, trying to get his hands on and mess up timing on routes.”
In addition to the two forced fumbles against the Bills, Arrington also kept the ball out of star receiver Stevie Johnson’s hands on back-to-back third-down tries in the second quarter, nearly intercepting the first throw (it was overturned on review because the ball hit the ground first), and on the re-do defending an incompletion to Johnson.
Arrington was even better against the Jets in Week 2, stopping Stephen Hill short on a third-and-1 catch, providing good defense on a deep third-down pass for Clyde Gates in the first half, and then tipping up a third-down pass intended for Gates in the fourth that Talib intercepted.
Through two games, New England is eighth in third-down defense, allowing 10 conversions in 31 chances (32.3 percent). In 2012 the Patriots ranked 22d (40 percent).
McCourty believes Arrington’s play is integral to the team’s early success.
“He’s just been really productive for us this year. I mean, everyone saw the two caused fumbles in the first game, but he’s just all over the field, tipping that first one up that Talib intercepted, getting his hands on a lot of passes,” McCourty said. “Everyone knows in this league, the slot is huge on third down and the reason I think we’ve been able to play well on third down, a big reason, is him.
“He’s out there competing with guys in the slot and making it tough for them. I think he’s come back this year really focused and playing at a high level and being a guy on this defense that teams know is going to play at a high level inside and try to stop their best third-down guy.”
As he transitioned to the slot last year, Arrington found himself lined up opposite Wes Welker in practice.
It was the best preparation he could get.
“Wes is — he’s a baptism by fire kind of guy,” Arrington said with a chuckle. “He’s one of the guys that makes you work for any and everything you get. I can never say enough great things about Wes. He’s just one of those shifty, quick guys who just has an extremely explosive first couple steps.”
Undrafted out of Hofstra in 2008 — the school dropped its football program a year later — Arrington initially signed with the Eagles and was on their practice squad but was released a week into the season.
He was jobless for eight days before the Buccaneers came calling, and spent the rest of his rookie year on Tampa Bay’s practice squad. He was elevated to the team’s 53-man roster for the 2009 season opener but then cut the next day.
In another week, he became a Patriot, and was on the practice squad for six weeks when Cleveland came calling, and wanted to sign Arrington to its 53-man roster. New England didn’t want to lose the young player, and promoted him off the practice squad. He played in the last eight games of the season, recording a remarkable 17 special teams tackles, and has been on the field for every Patriots game since.
New England rewarded Arrington’s versatility and performance with a four-year, $16 million contract in March.
“I’m extremely grateful to the Patriots taking a chance on a kid from Accokeek, Maryland,” Arrington said. “But I’m still working a lot. There’s still a lot I feel I can do better, improve on, so we’re just taking it one day at a time.”
McCourty loved seeing his friend get that type of commitment from New England, and knows it’s only going to make him work harder.
“I think it’s great,” he said. “He’s a guy that you can tell he plays the game with a chip on his shoulder and I think the best thing is that that hasn’t changed and that’s why I think you’ve seen him be more productive this year than last year is he just doesn’t stop working — he’s always going to work hard, he’s always that one guy that’s practicing harder than everyone else on the field, and I don’t think that will ever change about him.
“That’s who he is as a person, and to get rewarded for that, I think that’s great. You don’t always see that in this league, and for him to be able to take advantage of it is really good for him and his family.”
The 5-foot-10-inch Arrington may have quite the challenge on Sunday; the Buccaneers sometimes have 6-5 receiver Vincent Jackson line up in the slot.