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Defensive plan a thing of genius
By Len Pasquarelli

NEW ORLEANS -- The week that began with maintenance workers stretching flag-like bunting across the chain-link fences that turned this city's Superdome into an armed fortress, and which included a level of national pride that bordered on jingoism, concluded with the NFL's most aptly named franchise cavorting at midfield in a storm of red, white and blue confetti.

How silly of all us alleged know-it-alls to have underestimated the New England Patriots, in this wear-your-national-pride-on-your-sleeves season especially, and how imprudent of us as to assume the real Minister of Homeland Defense could not conjure up a game plan to slow the terrifying St. Louis Rams offense in Super Bowl XXXVI.

Bill Belichick led the Patriots to the championship in just his second year as their head coach.

OK, so maybe Patriots owner Bob Kraft went a little hyperbolic when he noted that his team is "a symbol of what this country is really all about" following New England's 20-17 victory achieved on Adam Vinatieri's 48-yard field goal as time expired. But the man can be forgiven his excesses and, given the irregularity of an NFL season rendered disjointed by the events of Sept. 11, it was altogether refreshing to see destiny and defense dovetail so nicely.

A team called the Patriots winning a Super Bowl that featured pregame and halftime shows in which the real heroes of this land were honored? A team that bleeds red, white and blue, and is so egalitarian it refuses to have its offense or defense run out for pregame introductions and merely enters the field en masse, finally claiming its first Super Bowl ring? You've go to admit, there's a little divine handiwork operating there. On a night when the superb entertainment elicited chants of "USA" from the crowd of 72,922, could you believed in magic? Damn straight, you could.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who once again checkmated the league's resident offensive guru, acknowledged that if the two teams played again next week the betting line might not change at all. He might be right in that assessment but, on this night at least, he was more often correct in the defensive calls he made.

In finally moving for good out of the solar coaching eclipse otherwise known as Bill Parcells, the brilliant Belichick not only reinforced his reputation as one of the premier defensive strategists of the last quarter-century, but established himself as a pretty good head coach, too.

He and coordinator Romeo Crennel mixed secondary coverages well enough to flummox Rams quarterback Kurt Warner, blitzed just enough at opportune times to force him into critical errors, and tightened the screws in the secondary when it became obvious the St. Louis star could not gun the ball up the field after he reinjured the thumb on this throwing hand in the third quarter.

"Nothing against (quarterback Tom) Brady, but the MVP for us was Belichick, because we all knew he'd come up with something to stump them," said New England strong safety Lawyer Milloy. "When you've seen him do it time and time again, like we have, you come to believe in the man. A lot of people have the 'genius' label in this league, but he's one of the guys who really deserves it. We were all confident we could stop them."

Typical of a Belichick game plan, the rationale was simple and the design complex. The Patriots felt their secondary was physical enough to not only redirect the St. Louis pass routes, sometimes by jamming the receivers and others by just using their hands to knock them off stride, but also to punish them after they caught the ball. To do so, however, New England used at least a dozen coverage combinations, according to cornerback Ty Law, and most of them worked well.

Although the Rams generated 427 yards, they uncharacteristically stumbled out of the blocks, and scored only three points in the first three quarters. Nearly one-quarter of the St. Louis yards came in the final four minutes of the game, as did both their touchdowns, and the Rams never got into the kind of pitch-and-catch rhythm upon which their offense thrives.

In short, the Patriots turned an offense that established a league record this year by scoring 500-plus points for a third consecutive season, and which include breathtaking playmakers at all of the skill positions, into a jugger-not for much of the evening.

Essentially the Patriots deployed in the football equivalent of a rope-a-dope defense, backing off into coverage and only compacting the pocket when they felt confident they could bamboozle the Rams' offensive line, on a few opportune occasions.

Of the Rams' 69 offensive snaps, the Patriots were in a "nickel" or "dime" look nearly 80 percent of the time. They had five defensive backs on the field for 22 snaps, six defensive backs 26 plays and seven on a half-dozen occasions. It was, in some ways, a bit reminiscent of the regular-season matchup between the clubs, when New England opened the contest with a seven-defensive back alignment even though the Rams were in a "base" offensive set.

The most dramatic difference between that Nov. 18 meeting at Foxboro, Mass., and the Super Bowl XXXVI game plan was the number of blitzes. The Patriots blitzed Warner 39 times on 72 snaps in the regular season but just eight times on Sunday night. But that was a sufficient number to foment havoc in the St. Louis blocking scheme and the fears of several Rams linemen, who noted privately during a week of preparation that they might be fooled by the ever-morphing fronts of the Pats, became a tragically self-fulfilling prophesy.

"They seemed to sense when to come with the blitz, when we were a little big vulnerable, and they were right," said Rams right guard Adam Timmerman. "If you look back at their blitzes, it wasn't like they came at us a lot, but they were still effective."

One blitz in particular altered the game, and it came when the Pats jumped into an unusual five-man front and strongside linebacker Mike Vrabel gambled that he could beat St. Louis tackle Rod Jones off the edge. Vrabel moved up into the line, down into a three-point stance and exploded past a flailing Jones, who totally whiffed on the block. With the rush suddenly in his face, Warner threw a up a prayer on an out-pattern for Isaac Bruce and Patriots cornerback Ty Law intercepted the errant lob and returned it 47 yards for a touchdown and a 7-3 lead in the second quarter.

It was, by unofficial count, one of just three times all night New England lined up in a five-man front. But it was one of the most fortuitous times to make the call, and a gamble that worked for Vrabel, who improvised a little.

Nothing against (quarterback Tom) Brady, but the MVP for us was Belichick, because we all knew he'd come up with something to stump them. When you've seen him do it time and time again, like we have, you come to believe in the man. A lot of people have the 'genius' label in this league, but he's one of the guys who really deserves it. We were all confident we could stop them..
Lawyer Milloy, Patriots safety

The linebacker explained that, simply to mix up the front, he rushed from a three-point stance and not a standing position.

"I think," said Vrabel, laughing, "their guy was stunned. Half our defense was, too, because I get to the quarterback and make the sack or hurry him, or he hits a big play there. Lucky for us, we got the big play. That one really turned things around."

In fact, it was typical of the suicidal bent to the St. Louis offense, which moved the ball through the evening, but generally authored errors of both omission and commission to squelch drives. That the Rams rallied in the final four minutes, scoring on Warner's short run and terrific effort by wide receiver Ricky Proehl on a "pick" play, when he came wide open on an "arrow" route to the sideline, is testimony to St. Louis' gumption.

Too often, however, the Rams' receivers lacked heart, especially when running through the thick of the New England secondary.

St.Louis receivers dropped at least four passes on which they were hit between the hashes and a Proehl fumble after a 15-yard catch, when he was crushed by backup safety Antwan Harris and coughed up the ball, was typical of the uneven performance by the NFL's most explosive group. No Rams receiver had more than five catches, none broke the 90-yard mark, and they averaged a pedestrian 13.0 yards per catch.

As a team, the Rams disdain the "finesse" label often attached to them. On Sunday, that handle was even harder to shake than the coverage by the New England secondary.

"You don't want to say they don't like getting hit," said Patriots free safety Tebucky Jones, "but I will say they haven't had to play much against secondaries that hit like we do. There came a point when they were playing with their heads on swivels a little bit, looking around to see just where we might be coming from, you know? That was all part of our game plan and we didn't have to adjust it very much."

Although their coverage quota was pretty evenly split between zone and man-to-man looks, the Pats went more to the latter in the third quarter after Warner reinjured his thumb. At that point it became evident the league's most valuable player during the regular season could not get any zip on his passes. New England compacted the field a bit more then and clamped down tighter on the Rams' wideouts.

In the end, the game boiled down to New England quarterback Tom Brady and Vinatieri, two men of moxie, who combined to sink the Rams in the final minutes. Named as the game's most valuable player, despite only passing for 145 yards, Brady completed five of eight attempts for 53 yards, and two of his three misses came when he spiked the ball to stop the clock. Vinatieri, who has never missed a field goal indoors -- he had hit all 25 attempts entering the game and converted both his tries -- nailed the 48-yard winner as time expired.

But their heroics probably would not have been possible without the genius of Belichick. Funny thing, but Belichick noted early in the week about how the seven-day break between the AFC title game and the Super Bowl would make it more difficult to prepare for the Rams' diversity. Indeed, the one-week break meant another compelling game, with the six games played in that manner now decided by an average of just 9.0 points, including three by a touchdown or less.

Had the Patriots enjoyed the usual two-week break, though, there's no telling what manner of defensive torture Belichick would have summoned up. Kraft, who sacrificed a first-round draft choice to free Belichick from his New York Jets contract two years ago, allowed that he was fully vindicated now. Warner conceded he was vanquished by a guy he doesn't care to face anytime soon again.

"You can say they made more plays and, from a physical standpoint, that's true," Warner said. "But they beat us mentally, too, and that's a tribute to their head coach."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for