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INDIANAPOLIS — As a rookie in 2006, DE Mark Anderson was an unstoppable force for the Bears. The fifth-round pick out of Alabama played mainly as a third-down pass rusher, registering 12 sacks and four forced fumbles on a Chicago team that reached Super Bowl XLI. In that game vs. the Colts, Anderson notched another sack, taking down Peyton Manning in a game Indianapolis eventually won.
Things appeared bright for Anderson at that time. However, in the years following that game, the lineman had many more disappointments than quarterback hits. He registered just 9½ sacks in the next three-plus seasons for the Bears following the Super Bowl before being released by the team in October 2010. The Texans gave him a shot down the stretch of last season, and while he did have four sacks in 11 games, Anderson found himself without a team again entering the 2011 season.
Upon signing with the Patriots last August, Anderson found himself not only a team to play for, but a defensive huddle filled with players who had been in similar positions to the one he was in. At almost every position on the New England defense is a player who'd been let go by another team, left behind in favor of a high draft pick or deemed to be unworthy of playing in the NFL. Yet, when put together, the unit has helped the Patriots reach Super Bowl XLVI.
There's OLB Rob Ninkovich, who bounced around a few different teams before coming to New England in 2009 and becoming an impact player. DT Gerard Warren, the No. 3 overall pick of the 2001 draft by the Browns, played for three different teams until he came to the Patriots last season. CB Kyle Arrington shuttled between the practice squads and active rosters of three teams — including the Patriots — before earning an opportunity to start. He tied for the league lead in 2011 with seven interceptions.
"When you come to New England, you think of the hard work of Coach (Bill) Belichick, of (Tom) Brady and everybody, and I think it makes you want to give it your all," Anderson said Wednesday. "They have a whole system here, and I'm just thankful I got an opportunity. Ever since I got here, I wanted to make the most of it."
Ninkovich agreed, saying, "I think that when you're released by a team, there's some anger and frustration; you want to get back at the people that released you. There's a sense of urgency, because every time you're released, that's a missed opportunity to be an on NFL team. Every time you get another chance, you want to make the best of it. A lot of guys who are here, including myself, wanted to make the best of that opportunity."
Previously, the Patriots had been primarily a destination for offensive players wanting a second chance. Guys like Corey Dillon and Randy Moss had been cast aside by their clubs but came to New England and found success. That has changed somewhat in recent years, as through the draft and free agency, Belichick and the coaching staff have built the offense into a consistent power. Now that philosophy has been transferred to the other side of the ball.
"What they've done in their past really doesn't matter to us; it's what they've done since they've been here," said LB coach Patrick Graham, speaking about the acquired players. "Mark, Rob, those guys have both been very productive for us."
S James Ihedigbo, who signed with the Patriots prior to the 2011 season after the AFC East-rival Jets opted not to offer him a new contract, said that the philosophy of building the roster with castoff players comes from the top.
"That's on Bill Belichick and his ability to put his personnel together and know who he needs to win," Ihedigbo said. "He said it to us before the (AFC divisional playoff game) that he brought us all here for this specific game, for this reason. He handpicked us, and we all understand that."
If the Patriots are to come away as Super Bowl XLVI champions, the team's defense has to play like clear-cut starters, not secondhand scraps. Anderson had 10 sacks during the season and believes he is returning to the form he showed as a rookie. Five years after sacking Peyton Manning in a Super Bowl, Anderson knows a big hit on Peyton's younger brother could make the difference on Sunday.
"Sacks are very important, and I'd love to get a sack of Eli," Anderson said. "But the most important thing is getting a victory. If the sack would help us get a victory, then I'm all for it."
The defender is hoping to make the most of his second Super Bowl chance, similarly to the way the Patriots have provided second chances for the careers of him and many of his teammates.