Posted: Wednesday September 28, 2005 5:48PM; Updated: Thursday September 29, 2005 2:37PM
Pats Tough It Out
I am trying to piece together a Patriots' secondary. There was such a swirl of numbers Sunday against the Steelers, guys getting hurt and leaving the field, then coming back in again, new faces appearing, some mere names on the roster, that I got confused. I'm not even sure who the new strong safety, replacing Rodney Harrison, will be. I'm hearing Chad Scott, normally a cornerback. The right corner will be manned by whomever is healthy at the moment.
Last year, when injury raked the area, just as it's doing now, they brought in guys off the street, such as Earthwind Moreland and Hank Poteat. They stuck a big guy, Don Davis, a linebacker, into a safety spot, basically to take up space and obstruct people, and switched a wideout, Troy Brown, to nickelback. And it all worked. They won another Super Bowl.
The problem started in their mid-season loss to the Steelers, when Ty Law went down. The other corner, TyronePoole, was already out. Last week's game bore an eerie resemblance to that contest. This time it was Harrison who was lost with three torn ligaments in his knee. Again, Poole was inactive. So was cornerback Randall Gay.
Left tackle Matt Light got hurt in that 2004 game. A rookie took over. The blitz killed him. Call it the Steelers' Mad Rush. Joey Porter, who goes wild when he smells blood, sacked Tom Brady three times and forced two fumbles. Brady never had a chance.
Last week Light got hurt again. A rookie, Nick Kaczur, replaced him. Did he struggle? Yeah, at times. But then he firmed up. The whole line did. That was one of the keys, I believe. The Steelers did a lot of all-out upfield rushing. They blitzed, too. But here's the thing about the Mad Rush. It's tiring. If you don't get there, and you have to turn around and give it the same effort on the next play, it can wear you out.
I think that's what happened to the Steelers. That's why Brady could complete 12 for 12 and put together three scoring drives in the fourth quarter. When I see fullback Patrick Pass catch a flat pass and fake all-pro LB James Farrior off his feet, to help set up the winning field goal, I have to believe the fatigue factor had kicked in.
Then there was the Patriots' defensive line. I'm not talking about three, as in 3-4, I'm talking about four sturdy linemen, spread across in a traditional 4-3. This is the best defensive line I've seen this year. From left to right, Ty Warren, who's been a bit hot and cold but has had two good games so far; Vince Wilfork, the plugger, the nose man; Richard Seymour, more effective as a three-technique tackle than he is on the outside, but no question the best interior lineman in football right now; and Jarvis Green, technically correct, a guy who gets stronger as the game goes on.
And that's the key, the way they made an endurance contest out of it, and outslugged Pittsburgh's offensive five. Oh, the Patriots will mix in some 3-4, just to give other teams more stuff to work on, but their strongest defense is the good old 4-3. They stood foursquare against the Steelers. They shut down the major threat, Fast Willie Parker. I saw all-pro guard AlanFaneca's knees buckling in fatigue in the fourth quarter.
I once heard Steelers coach Chuck Noll talking about his defensive right tackle, Fats Holmes, the only guy on that unit who never made the Pro Bowl, but the most feared of all the linemen. "You want to know how good he is?" Noll said. "Watch the guy playing against him staggering off the field at the end of a series."
That was what I saw in Steelers-Patriots on Sunday.
Here's a question for fans in the Boston area. Not sportscasters nor sportswriters nor coaches, but fans, because I'm sure at least some of them saw the same thing I did, something that escaped the notice of all the geniuses. You would do me a favor if you would please respond to this for my next mailbag column, and Andrew, kindly send all such responses through to me, even if they get up to three or four.
Boston College is playing Florida State. The Eagles are down by 11 and they have the ball inside the FSU five-yard line with about three and a half minutes to go. They run the ball, and then again and again. Then there's a penalty and a new set of downs, and they keep running, and the clock keeps moving, and nothing is happening.
They can run the ball 50 more times and they're not going to get it in because the FSU line is too quick. They can't get those guys blocked. Now it's fourth down. There are less than two minutes left. Their only chance, I feel, is to kick the field goal, and then onside kick it, which would give them a chance for a TD and a two-point conversion, which would tie it.
But I know very well what's going to happen. I know it by looking at the face of that BC coach, and what I see is a blank expression. I know he's going to run it again and get stopped and that'll be the end of the game, right there. And that's exactly what happens. Drive carefully on the way home, folks.
I once asked Bill Walsh why there's such bad strategy in college football.
"Because if you ever go to one of those clinics," he said, "95 percent is about how to set up your recruiting areas and get your alumni involved, and five percent is about how to win a game."
Now here's the thing that killed me. Do I hear one word of comment about this strategic screw-up from the ESPN announcers, Ron Franklin and Bob Davie? I do not. Did ESPN's resident genius, Lee Corso, make any mention of it? He did not. Nowhere in print did I read this, although I didn't get to see everything written about the game in the Boston area.
Fans, tell me straight. Am I nuts or is there someone out there who took notice of this and, just possibly, might have agreed with me? I've got to know.