JACKSONVILLE, FLA. – The Patriots are not world champions today without an innovative coaching staff unafraid to make even drastic alterations to their game plan from week to week. The Patriots are not world champions without incredibly resilient and talented players capable of adjusting to something different every week.
In Sunday's Super Bowl XXXIX win over the Philadelphia Eagles at ALLTEL Stadium, the Patriots scrapped the 3-4 two-gap base defense it used all season and went with what could be termed a light 4-3 front that included only two defensive linemen and five linebackers.
In two weeks, the Patriots abandoned what got them there. They went away from the 3-4 front that helped them win 16 of 18 games before Super Bowl XXXIX. Sure, they are a multiple front defense, but even when they play four down linemen at times, they play it with 3-4 principles and two-gap techniques unless in the nickel or another subpackage when everything goes out the window.
Sunday, they scrapped it all. They played in the gaps. They played head up on the guards with the center uncovered. They played shading the center and over the center. They penetrated. They rushed. And they blitzed early and often.
Behind it, Bill Belichick and Romeo Crennel, showed confidence in rookie cornerback Randall Gay, second-year man Asante Samuel and 12-year veteran wide receiver Troy Brown to play man-to-man coverage against the Eagles receivers. It wasn't perfect, but it was more than good enough for the Patriots to slow a strong, versatile Eagles offense and keep the clamps on quarterback Donovan McNabb, who ran once for no yards in the game while being confined in the pocket most of the night, which is just where the Patriots wanted him.
That was the No. 1 focus of the Super Bowl game plan – keep McNabb contained and bring extra rushers to make him feel the crush around him. Put bodies in the pocket, clog his escape lanes and keep contain on the edges.
It was a brilliant plan and like so many other this season, it was brilliantly executed. In fact, the execution of it was nothing short of remarkable considering the total scheme change made in the front seven.
"Unless you got the players, unless you got the brains, unless you got the skill, it's not going to get it done and we got the skill in this locker room," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said.
They have the skill and then some. The Patriots linebacking corps might just be the best in the NFL. Their versatility, both mentally and physically, gives Belichick so much flexibility when drawing up defenses and so many of his plans revolve around Willie McGinest, Rosevelt Colvin, Mike Vrabel, Roman Phifer, Tedy Bruschi and Ted Johnson. Certainly no team is deeper at that position and one would be hard-pressed to find a group with the all-around skills of this one.
That was evident again on Sunday when the outside linebackers were asked to play with their hand on the ground even on early downs when the Eagles run was a threat. Of course, it turned out to be no threat at all. With five defensive linemen rotating into two defensive tackle spots, the middle of the line was strong and fresh all night while the perimeter guys, those versatile linebackers, did a remarkable job blowing up outside runs and setting the edge. Philly ran it only 17 times for 45 yards with 22 of those coming on one Brian Westbrook run. That made the Eagles one-dimensional and the man coverage was good enough to make McNabb hold the ball while the heat was turned up around to him.
"We never really played a 3-4," Belichick said. "We felt like we needed to get as much pass rush on the field as possible to get McNabb and try to contain him. We knew chasing him around all day was going to be a long and tough proposition. We tried to match up as best we could with our best pass rushers."
The Eagles quarterback threw only eight interceptions all season, but tossed three against the Patriots. Philly did not turn it over in the red zone all season, but did so on back-to-back plays Sunday night, the first one being overturned by a questionable illegal contact penalty. McNabb was also sacked four times, pressured several others, gained nothing on the ground and made no plays outside the pocket. None. When he did escape or was flushed, he couldn't throw accurately.
So forget about his 357 passing yards and three touchdown passes. It wasn't enough. He produced only 14 points in the game's first 58 minutes. Seven of those came on a drive the Patriots defense seemingly took off by backing off the receivers and allowing McNabb to complete a series of uncontested out passes and underneath throws to Westbrook. McNabb completed 7-of-8 passes for 63 yards and a touchdown on the march.
"We were trying to mix it up," Gay said of the defense on the Eagles third quarter, game-tying drive. "We were playing so much press and if we showed it every play, they would start getting accustomed to it. Plus fatigue starts to kick on when you're running go routes with your man and every play is man-to-man. We were trying to make sure we didn't get real tired and get beat deep."
Beyond that drive, the inexperienced corners held up well in single coverage on the biggest stage, playing man about 95 percent of the game. Their success was critical to overall success of the defense because their play allowed Belichick and Crennel to stay with the game plan that called for pressure in McNabb.
"We thought it was going to be a passing game," Belichick said, "and we wanted to keep our best pass defense out there. We blitzed as much as we have all year."
The strategy behind that was not necessarily to sack McNabb, but to make him uncomfortable in tight space.
"We felt getting a legitimate four-man rush on McNabb was going to help us out the way our ends could set the edge with the two big tackles in the middle allowing us to form a half circle and make him sit back there and tri to beat us with his arm rather than scrambling and throwing on the run like he does so well. It was a totally different [defense]."
Ahh, but it wasn't a defense they've never seen before. Just one they had to dust off from their summer school study guide.
"We run the stuff during two-a-days so when it comes back up at certain points, it's easy to comprehend. That's the way it happens. We put in a lot of stuff [during training camp] so when we play a team that presents a certain challenge, the coaches go into their book and pull something out."
All week before the game, Belichick referred to preparation being critical to game day success and for his team, the preparation started when the spring offseason program began. That's the message he was truly sending with his pregame words. It was a message to his team, not some cliché for the media. Without that preparation along with diligence of the men who actually block and tackle, the Patriots are not the reigning world champions.
Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel confirmed after the game that he would be leaving to take the Cleveland Browns head coaching post, a move that became official Tuesday when the Browns announced Crennel as the man to replace Butch Davis. Crennel reportedly received a five-year, $10 million contract.
Richard Seymour may not have been 100 percent healthy for the game, but like Terrell Owens on the other side of the ball, he was 100 percent effective. Seymour finished with two tackles, one a 6-yard sack, and two pass deflection. He was his normal disruptive self, playing as a 4-3 defensive tackle rather than a 3-4 end. His strong performance came at the end of a six-week layoff, although he did practice in the days leading up to Super Bowl XXXIX and was positive and confident about his ability to contribute in the game. He did just that.
"It wasn't 100 percent," he said after the game, "but I was able to go out and feel comfortable where it wouldn't re-injure. I was probably a step or two short, but I felt comfortable and I was able to come in and be disruptive and effective."
Safety Eugene Wilson left the game with 1:04 left in the first half and went straight to the locker room with an upper body injury (arm or shoulder). He was hurt covering a kickoff and was replaced on the ensuing possession by rookie Dexter Reid. It was the second straight Super Bowl in which Wilson suffered a serious injury. Last year, he tore a groin muscle in the fourth quarter of the win over the Panthers. He will spend a second straight offseason in rehab. Reid was beaten for a touchdown just after the two-minute warning and also appeared to be in coverage on the Eagles second touchdown of the game. "Wilson was a big loss for us," Belichick said. "He was such a good player back there. He gives us the flexibility to have a corner at safety in the passing game. We use him to match up on a lot of different receivers. Dexter did a pretty solid job, but not having [Wilson] in the second half definitely hurt us. You don't lose a good player like that without feeling it."
Safety Rodney Harrison continued to come up huge. He had two interceptions and seven tackles, one of which was a terrific open field stop of Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. He also held up Eagles tight end L.J. Smith long enough for Randall Gay to punch the ball out for a turnover. Harrison easily could have been the MVP of Super Bowl XXXIX.
Linebacker Tedy Bruschi intercepted his second career postseason pass midway through the fourth quarter with New England leading by 10. Bruschi also had seven tackles and a 10-yard sack. He, like Harrison, was a disruptive force on the Patriots defense and played big in the big game, as he has customarily done. Belichick called Bruschi and Harrison the heart and soul of the defense.
Left tackle Matt Light had a big game. Light picked up a false start penalty on New England's opening possession, but then did a nice job battling Philly's leading sacker and best pass rusher, Jevon Kearse, who was a non-factor in the game. Kearse had two tackles and no sacks in the game.
Punter Josh Miller had one of his best game of the season. Miller punted seven times and grossed 45.1 yards while netting 42.4 yards per kick with no touchbacks and three punts downed inside the 20, including his final one in the last minute that was downed on the 4-yard line.