Brilliant Belichick is best in `D' business

Nfl Conference Championships

January 18, 2004|By MIKE PRESTON

THE EYES of the football world will be focusing on New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick today.

Belichick, the league's top defensive mind, will be involved in a chess match with the NFL's top quarterback and hottest offense as the Patriots play host to the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC championship game.

The Colts aren't just hot, they're sizzling.

They've scored 79 points in two playoff games. Peyton Manning has thrown for 681 yards in those games, with a combined quarterback rating of 156.9. The Colts have scored 10 touchdowns on 17 possessions and have been so dominating that they're contemplating sending Hunter Smith on vacation because he hasn't punted yet during the postseason.

Now, enter Belichick, the ultimate showstopper. It was Belichick who shut down the St. Louis Rams and "The Greatest Show On Turf" in Super Bowl XXXVI.

As a matter of fact, Belichick has two other Super Bowl rings as architect of a Giants defense that led New York to championships in the 1986 and 1990 seasons.

Big, bad Bill isn't afraid of the big, bad Colts. He might be the game's best coach, right up there with the Dallas Cowboys' Bill Parcells and newly rehired Washington Redskins legend Joe Gibbs.

"He'll take away the main routes of their receivers, and then the two or three running plays he has to be concerned with," said Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, a former offensive assistant under Belichick in Cleveland. "If he finds out that it's the first read Peyton likes, he'll take it away, too. He has an unbelievable ability to watch film. He is one of the greatest football minds I've ever been around."

Tennessee Titans general manager Floyd Reese said: "You're talking about two teams that do not make mistakes. It's going to be interesting to see what happens. Look what Bill did to the Rams in the Super Bowl. Bill and his staff will have something along those lines for Peyton and the Colts."

Against the Rams two years ago, Belichick's cornerbacks jammed receivers at the line of scrimmage to disrupt timing patterns, and he often used five or six defensive backs. He dared the Rams to beat him on runs by Marshall Faulk.

St. Louis coach Mike Martz's ego got in the way. Instead of running Faulk, he kept throwing and the Rams lost, 20-17. Advantage, Belichick.

Who knows what Belichick will try today. Will it be the 4-3 or 3-4 alignment? Will he play a variation of the old Buddy Ryan "46" defense? That's the mystery of Belichick.

"I've talked to a number of offensive coaches around the league, and they say he disguises things so well, giving you something you haven't seen before," said Jim Schwartz, the Titans' defensive coordinator and a former pupil of Belichick's. "Think about it. Preparation is key during the week, but then you're going against something you haven't seen. He is multidimensional, and so is his team."

Most coaches agree that Belichick's priority today will be taking out Colts receiver Marvin Harrison, who had 94 catches for 1,272 yards and 10 touchdowns during the regular season. Look for the Patriots to put Pro Bowl cornerback Ty Law on Harrison, with help from safeties Rodney Harrison and Eugene Wilson.

The Colts like to run 15- to 20-yard patterns in the middle to get Harrison isolated on safeties. If the Patriots can contain Harrison, then they can slow the passing game.

Next assignment: Stop running back Edgerrin James, who had 1,259 rushing yards this season and has played extremely well the past month.

"Ty Law has the ability to take out Harrison," said Ravens secondary coach Donnie Henderson. "If you can take out James, too, then that's the top two players and you're in pretty good shape. That's what Belichick has to be thinking. Because if they're running, they're play-action passing, which means you're in for a long day."

The Patriots also want to confuse Manning, who calls most of his plays at the line of scrimmage. Because of extensive film study, Manning is great at pre-snap reads and knowing a defense's tendencies.

Belichick's signature is using the unknown, which is how the Ravens successfully attacked Manning in a 22-20 road loss during the 2002 season. It's the best way to defend him.

"If Peyton comes out and reads the safety, and sees [that] he reacts the same way against similar situations, he'll eat that up," Henderson said. "We gave him tons of different looks. We told our guys that it didn't matter where you start out, but make sure you get into position to get the job done. I don't recall Peyton having any big plays on us."

Schwartz said the Patriots "have a veteran team up front, and flexibility in their defensive line. They can come out playing a 4-3 or a 3-4, and they can be a one-gap or two-gap team. Bill has so many different wrinkles."

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