Patriots' Bruschi finds a will, way to win

Smallish linebacker knows how an underdog can bite

Super Bowl Patriots Vs. Rams

January 30, 2002|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

NEW ORLEANS - The New England Patriots' man in the middle is right in his element.

Tedy Bruschi is five days away from colliding with the Greatest Show on Earth, the high-scoring St. Louis Rams' offense. His team is a two-touchdown underdog, which has created the third-widest point spread for the Super Bowl. And his coach has yet to name a starting quarterback.

But beating the odds isn't a challenge for Bruschi. It's a way of life.

Considered too small for the NFL at 6 feet 1, 245 pounds, Bruschi has jumped from part-time player to starting middle linebacker, using a relentless motor to deliver at a position few believed he could succeed. When New England attempts to record one of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history, the Patriots will look for run-stuffing tackles as well as inspiration from Bruschi, the heart of their defense and the soul of their overachieving team.

"Yeah, we're an underdog, but I've always been an underdog," Bruschi said. "I've been one of the most successful underdogs in history."

After tying an NCAA record for sacks as a devastating defensive end at the University of Arizona, Bruschi worked four years to shake the label of being a situational player in the NFL. From laboring as a special teams kamikaze and a pass-rushing specialist, he finally cracked the starting lineup two years ago as an outside linebacker.

But injuries this season to veteran middle linebackers Ted Johnson and Bryan Cox forced Bruschi into a questionable shift to the inside.

Several league observers pointed out that Bruschi's size didn't fit the classic middle linebacker model. Then again, that's what people said when he played defensive end in college, outside linebacker in the pros and everywhere else in between.

Yet thanks to Bruschi's playmaking over the past eight games, New England made a seamless transition from a 3-4 base defense to a 4-3. Bruschi finished the regular season with 73 tackles, third on the team.

"I'm not a classic anything. I'm just a classic football player," Bruschi said. "I've always been characterized as not this or not that. Whatever, man. Put me out there and I'm going to get it done no matter what."

What he lacks in size, the 28-year-old fan favorite makes up for in instinct and determination. Several times this season he has done somersaults and flips over blockers in his pursuit to make a tackle.

"When he leaves this world someday, all that it's going to say on his tombstone is `football player,' " Johnson said. "That's what he is."

For the Patriots to slow down Rams running back Marshall Faulk, Bruschi will have to provide a clutch performance, the kind of effort that he showed late in New England's AFC divisional playoff victory over the Oakland Raiders.

With the Raiders on the verge of victory, Bruschi and Ty Law mashed Zack Crockett on a third-and-one with 2:19 left in regulation, forcing an Oakland punt and an improbable reversal of fortune that resulted in a 16-13 Patriots overtime triumph.

"He makes plays," said Rams right guard Adam Timmerman. "I'm not sure if he's got flat-out speed or football speed. It just seems that he's in the right place at the right time, instinctively or whatever he is."

Said Cox: "He's real fast and does a great job of running and quarterbacking the defense. I was very surprised at how versatile he was when I got here. He can play anywhere and is able to do it all. You don't find that very often, and you've got to have that for your team to be successful."

Bruschi's production has come in a timely fashion.

Scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, he signed a three-year, $4.6 million extension that included at $2 million signing bonus. It was a deal negotiated by Bruschi, who does not employ an agent.

Now, on Sunday, Bruschi intends to cash in once again as the underdog.

"The odds are stacked up against us," said Bruschi, a seldom-used rookie in the Patriots' last Super Bowl appearance five years ago. "We all know this. But we still believe. We still believe we're coming in here to win."

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