Posted: Thursday January 20, 2005 1:35PM; Updated: Thursday January 20, 2005 2:05PM
Bill Belichick's defense has continued to thrive this season despite several injuries to starters.
Brian Bahr/Getty Images
PITTSBURGH -- I was reminded of the task facing Bill Belichick in Sunday's AFC Championship Game when I walked through the Steelers' complex here on the South Side of town on Wednesday. The last time Belichick's Patriots faced Pittsburgh, the Steelers steamrolled New England for 221 rushing yards, and even the Pats' renowned goal-line defense couldn't slow down Bettis, Staley and Co.
Through the hallway outside the locker room came tackle Marvel Smith, center Jeff Hartings and guard Alan Faneca. Big dudes. Confident dudes. In the training room, getting worked on, were Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley. Bettis weighs about 258 now, and Staley is running about 245. This is a bruising, hard-running team. Tough task, stopping these hogs.
And that, of course, is where Belichick comes in. What makes him great (and I have to give an assist here to Pats defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, who with his staff formulates a gameplan in Belichick's image every week, then has it OK'd by the grand master) is his ability to be a coaching chameleon. As BumPhillips used to say, he can take hisuns and beat yourns, and then he could turn around the next week and take yourns and beat hisuns.
"The great thing Belichick does," Bill Cowher told me, "is he figures it out. Somehow, he figures it out."
Belichick, of course, leads my selection of today's top five defensive minds.
1. Bill Belichick, head coach, New England: Through 57 minutes last week against the Colts, the Patriots had held the greatest offense since the turn-of-the-century Rams to 206 yards in the AFC divisional playoffs. Without three vital opening-day starters. Belichick sets a plan and his players go out and execute it every single week. The strength of the offense they're facing doesn't matter.. He'll find a way to beat it.
2. Jim Johnson, defensive coordinator, Philadelphia: I'm impressed how he continually revamps with new bodies and new schemes. In the last 12 months, he's replaced two corners with kids, gone back and forth between light and heavy middle linebackers, and juggled his pass rush. Never met a blitz he didn't like and he mixes them up superbly.
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3. Gregg Williams, defensive coordinator, Washington: The perfect coordinator for today. Look how he took a unit that needed name tags in September and molded them into one of the three toughest defenses in football. Williams made four players in particular -- defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin, cornerback Shawn Springs, outside linebacker Marcus Washington and middle linebacker Antonio Pierce -- into feared players, different from the players who'd previously had holes in their games.
4. John Fox, head coach, Carolina: Fox's plan combines brute force and intelligent use of players who will never be Pro Bowlers. Ask Giants who played for him, and others who've had the wily Fox, and they'll tell you the same thing: He gave us the best chance to win every week by cutting us loose to blitz and play freely. And he figured out how to attack the weakness of the offense every week as well as anyone south and west of Belichick.
5. (tie) Jim Schwartz, defensive coordinator, Tennessee: The up-and-comer of the group. Just 38, Schwartz -- a Georgetown economics major who broke into pro football in 1993 as a scout on Belichick's Cleveland staff -- has a lot of Billy Beane in him. He studies stats and figures out which are really important and then he works his team heavier in those areas. He doesn't buy into lots of the hackneyed stats. "For example, one of the most overrated stats in football is total yards allowed," he said. "Look at New England. Do they care how many yards they allow? No. They care about points allowed. And look where they are every year."
Nick Saban, head coach, Miami: How can a guy be one of the brightest defensive minds in football when he hasn't coached in the NFL in 10 years? Just wait. You'll see. Anyone who's a confidant of Belichick's, whom Belichick takes two or three days every offseason to make time for, is going to be a major force in NFL defensive circles very soon.
Honorable Mention: Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, Buffalo defensive coordinator JerryGray.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Peter King covers the NFL beat for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com. Monday Morning Quarterback appears in this space every week.