|Wednesday, September 18
Who has the answer to beating the Pats?
By Len Pasquarelli
Since the New England Patriots last lost a regular-season or postseason game, the club has been penalized more than seven times only once in 19 contests.
Just once has New England had more turnovers than it did takeaways. And in a stretch that began after a Nov. 18, 2001 loss to St. Louis, the Pats have scored nine times on interceptions, fumbles or on special-teams plays, while surrendering just one such touchdown.
If those numbers aren't as scintillating as, say, some offensive statistics that have been posted by other franchises since someone last laid an "L" on the Pats, they do send an important message to the rest of the NFL -- a message that is resonating throughout the league.
Given the recent results -- New England has won 11 straight games, 13 of its last 14 and is 16-3 since quarterback Tom Brady replaced Drew Bledsoe in the starting lineup -- defeating the high-flyin' Pats might be much easier discussed than accomplished.
As good as the Patriots were over the final two months of the 2001 season, they are even better now, thanks in large part to the continuing maturation of Brady and the efforts of coach Bill Belichick and vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli, two men who rarely disagree evaluating players and how they might fit in New England's roster.
Two games into the season, those who considered Super Bowl XXXVI a fluke have been muted, and the Patriots are regarded by the majority as the NFL's premier team. This edition of the Pats are patsies no more.
But in a year when coaches have divined methods for quashing the powerful Rams offense and devised a sinister blueprint for dismantling a suffocating Pittsburgh defense, there must be on someone's drawing board a model for defeating the Patriots. After all, this appears to be a season for thumbing a nose at convention, so it follows that there must be a game plan for beating the Patriots as well, right?
Uh, maybe, but it wasn't the schemes used by the Steelers or New York Jets.
It has become exponentially more difficult now to "type" the Patriots, who despite the same fundamentally sound approach used in '01, have morphed into a far more explosive team at this early juncture of the 2002 season. The tendencies of the Patriots, carefully scrutinized in the offseason, have been so altered that much of the spring and summer homework is now obsolete.
On offense, what last year was viewed as a stodgy attack designed to keep the inexperienced Brady from making many big decisions has suddenly become stupendous in its potency. Defensively, the always exotic Belichick schemes are every bit as mind-numbing, but the depth chart now is even deeper.
Said a pro scout for one AFC team, a guy whose job is to prepare advance reports on opponents and who has broken down video from the Pats' first two games this year: "On both sides of the ball, they have more playmakers, and they're not just robots following the Belichick plan by rote. They're as complete a team as I've seen in a while. They're still as sound as ever, but they'll take more chances, and they're making more big plays."
Case in point: In 14 starts last season, Brady completed just 32 passes that netted 20 or more yards. But he has seven such hookups already in 2002. That the Patriots intend to open the throttle more for the third-year veteran was never more graphically illustrated than in the opener, when Brady called 25 straight pass plays. Last year, the Patriots never called more than seven pass plays in succession.
Of course, the rest of the league isn't going to concede a second Super Bowl title to the Patriots, so there are some thoughts about precisely what it will take to defeat the reigning champions. Most of them begin with forcing New England to play from behind. The consensus is that the Patriots are consummate front-runners, a team that smells blood when it is playing with a lead, one whose style is infused with killer instinct.
Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward pointed to a critical point in the opener. With the game tied 7-7, the Steelers had a first-and-goal at the New England 1-yard line courtesy of a dubious pass interference call against cornerback Ty Law.
"If we score there," said Ward, "we're up a touchdown and maybe some of the air goes out of their balloon. We had turned the ball over twice early and come back to tie it, so it would have shown that we were settled down, and back into the game. They're playing in their new stadium, and we answer back to their first punch with two touchdowns to take a lead, and suddenly the onus is on them."
Unfortunately, the Steelers didn't score from the 1. They didn't even net a field goal out of the futile possession. On first down, left tackle Wayne Gandy was flagged for a false start, negating a Jerome Bettis touchdown. On the next play, Kordell Stewart scrambled right and found Plaxico Burress alone in the back of the end zone, but the wide receiver couldn't get his feet inside the end line. After a third-down pass back to the 1, tailback Chris Fuamatu Ma'afala was called for unnecessary roughness. Then Kimo von Oelhoffen was penalized for a false start on a field-goal try.
The drive ended when Todd Peterson was wide left on a 39-yard field-goal attempt. Instead of taking the air out of New England's balloon, Pittsburgh experienced a series that was the equivalent of the Hindenberg disaster.
Game. Set. Mismatch.
"You can't make stupid mistakes against them, because they thrive on that, and it just plays into their mindset that they're going to force you into some kind of critical error," said Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde. "From their coaching staff on down, the Patriots believe they can get inside your head, and it's part of their approach. They have a lot of veteran players who buy into Belichick and his preparation. If they get reinforced early in a game, see that their stuff is successful, they turn it up a notch."
From a schematic standpoint on the defensive side, the consensus is that an opponent has to reciprocate against New England with a healthy dose of its own medicine. That means plenty of "Cover 2" looks with "man-under" in the short and intermediate zones. It also means mixing in press coverages against the wide receivers, who have collective explosiveness in and out of cuts and who add yards after nearly every catch.
The addition of free agent Donald Hayes and second-round draft choice Deion Branch have provided Brady with two outside playmakers. Despite the size dimension Hayes brings, however, the Pats' wide receivers still rate as one of the smaller groups in the league. And while they are elusive, the feeling is they can be roughed up a bit, jammed to prevent easy releases into their routes.
A year ago, defensive coordinators leaguewide felt that if you stuffed the Patriots on first down, it was a considerable advantage. Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis called games designed to keep Brady out of third-and-long situations, usually made the safe option on first down, then relied on down-and-distance tendencies. It isn't as cut-and-dried this season, though, since New England has displayed no qualms about throwing on first down. In fact, the Patriots' first-down pass quota is far higher than last year, which hovered at about 25 percent.
"They're attacking more now, so you have to come at Brady more often on first down, change up on him early in the possession," said one opposition linebackers coach whose team faces New England in the second half of the schedule. "He's a smart kid, and (Weis) is terrific in what he does with him, but he's still young. There isn't a quarterback in this league who doesn't get rattled at some point. But I think to get to Brady, you have to come inside on him. Compress the pocket from the inside, you know?"
Matching wits with grandmaster Belichick and his ever-evolving defensive chess match is even tougher to do. The Patriots are as sound, and probably more so, than any defensive unit in the league. They play the "Cover 2" so well, and mix in combination cover packages, it is nearly impossible to get a good pre-read on what they are doing. "And they seem to have something new every week," sad Steelers offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey.
Indeed, in the planning stage, opponents would do well to dig back deep into the video vault, because the standard study of three or four videotapes might not offer a glimpse into Belichick's fertile mind.
The key, it seems from discussions with three offensive coordinators, is to run outside the tackles and to throw quickly outside the yard-line numbers, but primarily on three- and five-step drops. Since the Patriots secondary is so well-versed in funneling routes inside, it's tough to throw there, even more so now that safety Tebucky Jones has developed into a more complete player and gets around the ball so well now.
A few coaches from other teams felt the best chance of knocking off the Pats was to make it a "fourth-quarter" game, but most cited New England's solid performance at crunch time to debunk that. They also noted the Pats have one of the game's premier kickers, in Adam Vinatieri and are not afraid to rely on him to win a contest in the final minutes.
Instead the consensus seemed to be that if the Patriots lose, the score will be surprisingly lopsided.
"I don't know who's going to beat them," said an NFC head coach. "But it will have to be somebody who strikes early, forces Brady into a mistake and takes advantage of it, opens up a 10- or 14-point lead. The truth is they are so well-coached and so in concert with the coaching philosophies there, they will win most close games."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.