Linebackers key part of Pats' defense

FOXBORO, Mass. -- It isn't enough that the Patriots already seem to be in the Colts' heads. But how can Indianapolis ever expect to overcome New England with the Patriots' defense playing Sunday as if it were present in the Colts' offensive meetings?

Part of the reason the Patriots' defensive game plan was so effective in the AFC divisional game was because, clearly, the coaches and players had a good idea of what Indy's offensive plan of attack might be.

Just look at the defensive personnel the Patriots employed, particularly in the second half after the coaches decided to take receiver-turned-corner Troy Brown off Brandon Stokley: Bill Belichick and Romeo Crennel went mostly with their base 3-4, even in some obvious passing situations. With the Patriots, it's all about getting their best 11 on the field, and in most cases that includes four of their physical, savvy, versatile linebackers.

Inside linebackers Tedy Bruschi, Ted Johnson, Roman Phifer and outside linebackers Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel, and Rosevelt Colvin are so instinctive and so plugged into what offenses (in the case, Indy's) are trying to accomplish, they're almost like extensions of Belichick and Crennel. One can only guess as to how many big gains they prevented Sunday by making -- and, more important, relaying -- proper pre-snap adjustments up front and in the secondary.

If New England's young cornerback tandem of Randall Gay and Asante Samuel stepped up with the odds stacked against them, it's because safeties Rodney Harrison and Eugene Wilson had their backs -- they were behind them defending against the deep pass. And Harrison and Wilson were able to stay there because of the job done by the front seven and especially the linebackers.

"Most other times when you have starters down," Peyton Manning said after the game, "you really sort of lick your chops and you really expose it. With New England, though, because they won without all these guys, they won without their starting corners, it's just a credit to them, the other players and their coaches, the guys that are in there, for stepping up and playing well. It seems like it doesn't really matter who's in there because the core guys that are there really elevate the rest of everybody's play."

Stuff the stat sheet doesn't show:

• Colvin had Edgerrin James covered so well on the screens the Colts used to try and exploit the Patriots' two-deep zone that a few times the plays were over before they started.

• Johnson said the linebackers were asked to cover man to man for this game more than usual; Phifer covered the deep middle part of the field when the Patriots played "Tampa Two" toward the end of the half.

• McGinest and Vrabel disrupted the timing of the Colts' offense and took away Manning's middle reads by jamming/redirecting slot receiver Stokley and tight ends Dallas Clark and Marcus Pollard as they came off the line of scrimmage. With the Colts facing third-and-goal just before halftime, "look what Mike Vrabel does to Dallas Clark," Bruschi said. "Puts him on his butt, puts his knee in his back while he's on the ground [helping force an incompletion and a field goal]. That's the attitude that we wanted to set."

• The Patriots set the tempo by shutting down the Colts running game. The linebackers' role in run support kept the safeties in coverage and not in "the box." Yet even with the added responsibilities, the 'backers still managed to help the d-line apply pressure on Manning. McGinest, called by Belichick one of the best jamming linebackers he's coached, often jams and rushes on the same play.

"The little things that add up to mean a lot," Johnson said.

The Patriots' coaches made the somewhat unusual move of playing bigger, slower defenders against such a prolific passing offense. What the linebackers lack in speed, they make up for in experience. "A lot of times we had our base defense out there when most teams would put in a faster unit," Johnson said. "Having an overall knowledge of what the offense is trying to do, we don't hurt ourselves keeping bigger guys out there, to have our first and second down unit out there. That's pretty unique."

This is a unique set of linebackers, one that has just two Pro Bowl appearances, both belonging to McGinest (not counting special teamer Larry Izzo's two trips to Hawaii). Bruschi, Colvin, McGinest, and Vrabel all were defensive linemen in college who converted to linebacker in the pros, giving them insight into how to exploit protection schemes as pass rushers. Bruschi, Johnson, and McGinest all have been with the Patriots since 1996. Phifer and Vrabel joined the band in 2001, Colvin last season. Only Colvin (27) and Vrabel (29) are under 30-years old.

Three starting linebackers together for nearly a decade and six who have started? That's something the folks in Pittsburgh, site of Sunday's AFC championship game between the Patriots and Steelers, certainly should be able to appreciate. They've seen a few good linebackers come through there. The visitors are bringing some of the best in the business to town this week.

"It's called a rotation, but we're really all starters, because whenever we get in there we're all making plays," Bruschi said. "We really feel we have six starters out there.

"When you know a guy that well on and off the field and you know his tendencies and you know what he means sometimes just by his body language, that makes it easier to be on the same page. We've been working together so long to where we know what the other guy's going to do before he even does it.

"It always looks like we're doing the right thing because when I mess up, Vrabel usually has my back. He knows that if I'm dropping maybe in the same coverage area that he's dropping, he realizes that we're not supposed to be in the same place so he'll switch his drop in the fly. I'll do the same when Willie and I aren't on the same page."

Said Johnson: "That's so big you can't even imagine. I know Willie's temperament, I know Tedy's temperament, I know Phifer's temperament. There's just a comfort level with all of us that's very natural. We enjoy each other's success and genuinely want to see each other do well. That's unique in this day and age of ego overdrive."

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.