Giant task awaits Pats

Belichick: Nothing gives the Patriots' `mad scientist' more pleasure than outwitting an offense.

Super Bowl

February 03, 2002|By Jamison Hensley | By Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

NEW ORLEANS - To slow down the Greatest Show on Earth, the New England Patriots have put their trust in their own ringmaster.

If anyone can remove the flash from the St. Louis Rams' offensive attack, it may be the Patriots' Bill Belichick, a head coach with a 24-hour poker face and a lifelong obsession with defense. While his personality is ultra-reserved, Belichick is ingenious and unconventional in his defensive thinking.

Give him an hour with some tape, and he'll dig up some secrets about an offense, as well as develop some booby traps on defense. Belichick conjures up so many different alignments and blitzes for every opponent that even his own players don't know what to expect on a weekly basis.

"He's the mad scientist," defensive end Willie McGinest said. "But if we follow his script, we're usually successful."

Belichick's game plan relies on the elements of surprise and disguise.

The Patriots switch from three-man to four-man fronts fluidly throughout a game. At times, it might look like one and then flip to the other at the last moment.

They mask their coverages. They blitz their cornerbacks. They use seven defensive backs.

In other words, expect the unexpected.

"Bill is always moving things around, changing up," St. Louis coach Mike Martz said. "He's not afraid to change and be different from down to down. He's not afraid to be aggressive. He understands what you do on offense, and he attacks it. It's kind of the way we like to do it on offense."

Said Patriots linebacker Bryan Cox: "Everything is new from week to week. What we play this week may not be what we play next week. There are 16 different philosophies based on the 16 different teams we play."

When the Patriots lost to St. Louis, 24-17, on Nov. 18, they went down swinging. New England decided to go after Rams quarterback Kurt Warner, blitzing 55 percent of the time.

Though St. Louis racked up 401 yards passing that game, Belichick left an impression.

"He hit us with stuff that we've never seen before," Rams center Andy McCollum said. "It was impressive. It caused problems because we had to make so many [blocking] calls before the snap. He didn't stick with one thing, so we were always guessing."

Belichick's love of strategy can be traced back to Annapolis. The son of an assistant coach at Navy, he was diagramming defenses before he was in his teens.

He was an NFL assistant at 23, defensive coordinator of the New York Giants at 33 and a head coach with Cleveland at 37, after he helped the Giants win their second Super Bowl. But until the past couple of months, Belichick was considered a marginal head coach after six years, struggling to produce a 42-56 record, with only one winning season.

But few question his defensive mind, filled with X's and O's, imagination and innovations. He dissects film so closely that defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel said Belichick knows what routes receivers like to run by how far their feet are separated at the line of scrimmage.

"My biggest fault as a coach would be to give the team a poor plan, a poor design for them to look at it and say, `You've got to be kidding me,' " Belichick said. "As a coach, you've got to give the players a chance. You can't have them look back on the game as though they were unprepared."

The Patriots finished 24th in defense out of 31 teams this season, but the ranking was somewhat misleading.

New England gave up the sixth-fewest points in the league (17 points a game) and held opponents to 17 or fewer in 10 of its past 11 games. The stingiest AFC defense inside the red zone, the Patriots allowed just 19 touchdowns in 49 trips inside the 20-yard line (38.8 percent).

But the Super Bowl will come down to strategy, not statistics. Going against the NFL's best offense, it's the ultimate chess match for Belichick.

"It's a game within a game as far as the coaches are concerned," New England cornerback Ty Law said. "Belichick loves that. We're out there playing and we're like, `What is this?' We don't know what the hell he's doing half of the time, but it seems to work."

Belichick's record

Regular season

Year Team W-L Pct. Fin.

1991 Cleveland 6-10 .375 3rd

1992 Cleveland 7-9 .438 3rd

1993 Cleveland 7-9 .438 3rd

1994 Cleveland 11-5 .688 2nd

1995 Cleveland 5-11 .313 4th

2000 New England 5-11 .313 5th

2001 New England 11-5 .688 1st

Totals 52-60 .464

Playoffs

Year Team W-L Pct.

1994 Cleveland 1-1 .500, 2001 New England 2-0 1.000

Totals 3-1 .750

1994: Won wild-card game vs. New England, 20-13; lost divisional game to Pittsburgh, 29-9.

2001: Won divisional game vs. Oakland, 16-13, OT; Won conference championship vs. Pittsburgh 24-17.

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