The trick to playing Mike Martz and the Rams twice in one season, says Patriots coach Bill Belichick, is not to do the same thing the second time. "You're dealing with a very smart offensive coach," says Belichick, who lost to Martz 24-17 in November. "Show him the same stuff, and he'll hurt you."
In the first game the New England defense gave St. Louis a rocky first half with blitzes, including zone blitzes. Then in the second half the Patriots got run over. So in the Super Bowl they pulled in their horns and blitzed infrequently but effectively. "The Rams kill you with almosts," Belichick says. "You blitz and you almost get there, but Kurt Warner's throwing off those three-step drops. He gets those damn racehorses coming out untouched, and they catch the ball, and they're off and running." On Sunday the Patriots mixed a zone defense with man coverage, the key to both being the aggressive pressing of cornerbacks Ty Law and Otis Smith.
"We call it rerouting," says Smith, who was a candidate for Super Bowl MVP before quarterback Tom Brady's heroics at the end. "Knock them out of their pattern, get them out of sync with Warner."
Law, who had Rams wideout Isaac Bruce all over the field when the Pats were in man coverage, grabbed an errant throw intended for Bruce in the second quarter and took it 47 yards for a score. Smith rerouted Torry Holt on a slant route in the third period, intercepted the ball and returned it 30 yards to set up a field goal. Another New England touchdown was set up by a fumble in the second quarter, when dimeback Antwan Harris knocked the ball loose from Rams wideout Ricky Proehl after a 15-yard catch. That's 17 of the Patriots' 20 points coming from plays by the defense.
The biggest challenge to New England's defense, though, was Marshall Faulk—"the mismatch guy," Belichick calls him, "the toughest player in the NFL to cover."
"We took turns chipping on him, never giving him a clean release," says Eric Mangini, Belichick's talented young secondary coach. "Most of the time it was with our end, Willie McGinest, but sometimes it was with our defensive backs or our strongside linebacker, Mike Vrabel. The important thing was to try to get a shot on him every play."
"We weren't trying to hurt him," says McGinest. "We just wanted to give him the attention he deserved. Sure, it took away from my pass rush and sometimes made me vulnerable against the run, but that's why they call it a team game. You do what you have to do to help your team win." In November, Faulk caught seven passes for 70 yards and a touchdown. On Sunday his numbers were 4 for 54 and no scores.
The aggressive style took its toll, though, and by the fourth quarter, when the Rams made their comeback, the Patriots' defense was tired. "Actually, drained, on the ropes," Law says. "The Rams didn't get where they were by folding. They kept coming."
Then Brady and the offense took over. A team game. A Super Bowl champion that had refused to be introduced individually before the game, only as a team. And what a team.