Patriotic defense

2-04-02, 5:25 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

NEW ORLEANS _ Checkmate, Belichick.

The Patriots head coach won his chess match with Rams offensive guru Mike Martz Sunday night here in the glare of Super Bowl XXXVI, 20-17, and offered a slight smile when he said, "And if we played again tomorrow, we'd probably be the underdogs," Bill Belichick said.

But the Pats are savoring the biggest Super Bowl upset since Joe Namath guaranteed one 33 years ago because Belichick and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel decided to ditch the game plan they used in losing to St. Louis, 24-17, back on Nov. 25.

Defensive end Willie McGinest, who went from Bill Buckner to Larry Bird in the time it took Adam Vinatieri's 48-yard field goal to sail through the uprights, described the bruising game plan for subduing future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Kurt Warner and running back Marshall "Canton," Faulk with a bunch of nine-to-five guys.

"The two guys we wanted to hit every play were those two guys," said McGinest, whose holding call on Faulk negated safety Tebucky Jones' 97-yard touchdown return off a fumble.

"Everybody hit (Faulk)," McGinest said. "The linemen, the DBs coming up. Everybody . . .It was in the game plan for us to hit Faulk no matter where he was on the field and we knew if we took Faulk out of the game, we had a good chance of winning. That was my job. If he was close to me, I was to take him out. I was a little too aggressive."

Or, as safety Lawyer Milloy said, "There's only one way to slow down speed and that's to hit."

Jones felt from the moment Warner threw incomplete on the game's first play to wide receiver Torry Holt over the middle that the Rams heard the Pats' footsteps.

"Usually, the teams they play that don't get really aggressive with them, they blow out those teams," Jones said. "The teams that play them aggressively, it's been a low-scoring game.We knew we were going to have to hit them in the mouth from the very beginning. They were going down before we were getting there."

And instead of blitzing Warner, they jammed his receivers, his passing lanes, and his thumb. In no particular order.

A Rams' team that became the first NFL team ever to score more than 500 points in three straight seasons had just a field goal after three quarters. The team that had been in the red zone a NFL-high 66 times this year, didn't penetrate the Pats' 20 until 11:21 left in the game.

Warner denied he hurt his thumb, but he couldn't deny the pressure he felt because he couldn't unleash the

ball with his characteristic quickness. He was sacked three times, threw one interception when he got hit by unblocked linebacker Mike Vrabel, and threw another when cornerback Otis Smith knocked Holt off the line of scrimmage.

"One of the things we wanted to do was disrupt them at the line of scrimmage," Crennel said. "We felt they would be ready for man coverage, since we gave them a lot of man the first time. So as an alternative to the man, we wanted to go with the cover two, which allowed us to be physical with the receivers. Once we saw that it was working, we could stay it a little longer."

And the Pats' secondary loved the game plan. It's because they had a big part in it.

"We wanted the coaches to put us up tight at the line so we could play them aggressively," said cornerback Ty Law, who easily could have been the MVP by setting the tone for the night with his 47-yard interception return for a touchdown gave New England the lead for good.

"That's the way I like to play," Law said. "That's the way Otis Smith and Terrell Buckley like to play. This is the Super Bowl. Let us do what we do best."

On 15 plays, the Pats covered them with four defensive backs. On 22 plays, they had five DBs, on 26 there were six DBs, and on six plays there were seven DBs hanging.

"I'd say they were very basic from what they were the first time we played them," Martz said. "They played a lot of two-deep type coverages, a lot of man-press kind of things. We seemed to move the ball well enough. We just had too many errors that they were able to take advantage of."

The Rams' first mistake came with 8:49 left in the first half when Vrabel lined up on the left side as the end on a five-man line. But right tackle Rod Jones appeared to miss his assignment and Vrabel roared in on Warner.

Jones, the former Bengal and a backup who started the two playoff games, didn't return to the game and limped out of the locker room hours later saying he re-injured the groin he hurt last week in the NFC championship game.

Warner's hurried pass floated into the flat and Law was able to cut in front of Bruce for the touchdown interception.

"We had pressure on Kurt and I thought he threw it off his back foot," Law said. "It's one those throws that could have went either way. If he would have got a good break on the ball, Isaac Bruce would have caught it. I knew the ball was going to come out fast and I'd just have to get there. There was nothing but green and the end zone in front of me."

Warner wasn't sure how Vrabel got free, but he said, "It's obvious the line slid to somebody they shouldn't have. I was surprised someone got free like that. . .I tried to make a bad play work. That's something you never want to do, make a bad play work.I should have just left it over on the sideline and if he doesn't catch it, we line up again."

It was nice for Warner to take the blame, but he had plenty of help in losing the turnover battle, 3-0. More than one Patriot was surprised Faulk didn't get more than 17 carries (for 76 yards) with so many DBs on the field.

"They did not put him in the game plan," said Pats linebacker Roman Phifer "I'm glad they didn't."

The emotions were raw. Otis Smith and Buckley, the pair of 10-year cornerbacks, celebrated their first title. The first thing Milloy said after the game was, "So, are we going to be underdogs next week?"

No, but Milloy is one of several Patriots on the new Wheaties box: "That's sweet. Number 36, he said.

It was sweet for a lot of reasons. Maybe there is something in a name.

"This was the toughest year that America has had to endure in recent memory," said inside linebacker Tedy Bruschi. "Isn't it just fitting that America was founded on underdogs trying to escape, and here we are, one of the biggest underdogs in Super Bowl history and we show America that patriotism and the New England Patriots are still here. We're still standing."

And it is the Pats' secondary that is standing tallest.

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