In the second year of his second decade as the Patriots' coach, Bill Belichick seems to have entered the "mad genius" period of his genius career, outdoing himself week to week in concocting ever crazier combinations of defensive players, particularly in his secondary, while still producing win, after win, after win.
Can Belichick keep the victories coming while granting regular starts to the likes of cornerback Kyle Arrington and safety James Ihedigbo, who five years ago faced each other before an intimate crowd of 9,211 in Amherst, Mass.? (Ihedigbo's alma mater, UMass, competes in the Football Championship Series; Arrington's school, Hofstra, would compete in the FCS if it still fielded a team.) Yes. What if he threw into the mix Antwaun Molden, a cornerback who was cut at the end of training camp this summer by a team, the Texans, that in 2010 fielded the NFL's worst passing defense in half a decade? Yes. How about if he used a player at nickelback—say, Julian Edelman—who until last month had never taken a professional practice rep as anything but a receiver or special-teamer and was a quarterback at Kent State? Yes.
Not mad enough for you? What if Belichick last week informed an even less accomplished receiver—Matthew Slater, who has both the bespectacled mien and the receiving résumé (one catch in four years) of a sophomore anthropology major—that he would be practicing with the defensive backs, and then, four days later, started him at safety against the Colts? Yes, still yes. The Patriots beat Indianapolis 31--24 at Gillette Stadium to improve to an AFC-best 9--3. Slater made seven tackles and forced a fumble. New England's orphanages have thus far gone untapped, but there is time yet.
Belichick's alchemy in the secondary has been partially forced by injury, as starting safety Patrick Chung and starting cornerbacks Devin McCourty and Ras-I Dowling have missed a combined 19 games. But only partially. In the past three months the coach has cut four veteran defensive backs—Leigh Bodden, Darius Butler, Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders—who, even if deemed no longer worthy of starting, might have provided experienced depth. More broadly, Belichick has been rebuilding his defense since 2007, when the Patriots' perfect season was spoiled by the Giants in Super Bowl XLII, and he committed to the project in earnest after the Tom Brady--less Pats missed the playoffs the following season.
Now his unit has picked up a nickname: The Who. No active New England defender other than the indomitable tackle Vince Wilfork has played in a Super Bowl (page 72). Since '07 the defense has sustained the departures, sometimes willingly but mostly not, of everyone else, including linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel and defensive end Richard Seymour, each of whom played in all four of the Super Bowls Belichick has reached, and All-Pros such as safety Rodney Harrison, cornerback Asante Samuel and defensive end Ty Warren. To replace such well-known names, Belichick has populated his roster, on both defense and offense, with uncomplaining, grateful players—the type of humble nonstar he has always loved but never more than now.
Belichick has relied, in other words, on players in the mold of Troy Brown, a slight, 5'10" receiver whom the Patriots drafted out of Marshall in 1993 in a round, the eighth, that no longer exists. Through force of will Brown turned himself into a 100-catch, 1,000-yard Pro Bowl wideout by 2001. Three years later he began moonlighting in the secondary. "I would do anything to win," Brown says of the switch to defense. "I just loved playing football in general. I was awful at first—we had about 10 receivers on the roster, and I got beat by all 10, all five tight ends, a couple of running backs. But it got better the more I did it. Guys like me can't say, 'Coach, I saw something and dropped off on that play, and that's why I got beat.' [Belichick] doesn't want to hear that from any of his players, but especially the low-profile guys." When Brown retired in 2008, with 557 catches and three interceptions, Belichick said, "It has truly been an honor and a privilege to coach Troy."
"He looks for guys who will put the team first," says Dan Klecko, whom Belichick drafted in the fourth round in 2003 out of Temple as a defensive tackle but who soon found himself playing fullback too. "It's corny, and it's a cliché, but they call it the Patriot Way. As long as what [players] are doing is best for the New England Patriots, they'll be on the field on Sunday. Bill knows how to pick them, and when he sees it's time to cut bait, he has no problem cutting bait." Klecko, who spent three seasons in Foxborough and won two Super Bowls with the Pats, jokes that Belichick can sense when a player is even considering diverting from the coach's plan. "I swear he knows what everybody's thinking," he says. "He has the place bugged, I swear to God."
Belichick's current Patriot Wayers have done little to anger those who surveil them, which is why they remain Belichick's current Patriot Wayers. "We all have our roles, and we play those roles," says Molden, who as a high school junior in Ohio in 2003 received calls from confused friends when the Cardinals drafted Anquan Boldin. "That's what Bill wants us to do. You're not doing your job if you take it upon yourself to do something else."
"It's been my role to do whatever they ask me to do," says Slater. "And I embrace that."
The result has been a virtually star-free defense that has bent (a lot) but not often broken. The Patriots' scheme allows opponents to gain yards in front of the defense but not behind, forcing offenses to make long drives that most teams are too impatient or undisciplined to sustain consistently. New England ranks dead last in the league in total yards allowed, at 412.1, and is on pace to surrender 400 more passing yards this season than any other NFL team, ever. Yet it also ranks a robust 13th in average points allowed (20.6), and fourth in turnover margin (plus 8), which is good enough for the Patriots to win a lot of games. The pressing question: Is it good enough to beat the league's best, most patient and most disciplined teams, and when it counts?