Patriots used game plan to stymie St. Louis
By Len Pasquarelli
SMITHFIELD, R.I. -- Nearly six months after the fact, as the New England Patriots reported for training camp here flashing smiles even brighter than their Super Bowl rings, several veterans were still willing to talk about the defensive game plan that enabled them to overcome the favored Rams.
While the players credited strong performances from the secondary, just enough blitzes to keep Rams quarterback Kurt Warner off-balance, and an occasional new wrinkle St. Louis coaches could not have seen on videotape, mostly they heralded the game plan conjured up by coach Bill Belichick.
"The one thing (Belichick) stressed was to try to keep them guessing," said linebacker Tedy Bruschi. "If you get predictable against an offense that's as explosive as that one, they're going to make plays, because they'll pick up on your tendencies as the game goes on. So part of our plan was to have no set tendencies at all. And it worked out pretty well, didn't it?"
Indeed, it did, as the Patriots choked off the Rams for three quarters, held St. Louis to a modicum of big plays, and took advantage of the fact coach Mike Martz did not revert to Marshall Faulk and the running game, as he had in the NFC championship game.
It is a game plan, both complex and at the same time more basic than people might think, that has been studied during the offseason by Rams opponents. The question is whether anyone else can adhere to it, or execute it, nearly as well as the Patriots did.
The Rams ran up huge advantages in first downs (26-15), total yardage (427-267), total plays (69-54), yards per snap (6.2-4.9) and possession time (33:30-26:30). Yet they scored only two touchdowns, turned the ball over three times, and appeared flummoxed at times by the Patriots scheme.
Little wonder, since Belichick and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel had cooked up a stew comprised of a lot of leftovers, but one that was in flux even as the game progressed.
The two teams had played during the regular season and the Patriots came out in that Nov. 18 contest in a seven-defensive back alignment, even with St. Louis opening in a "base" offense. In plotting his strategy for the Super Bowl matchup, Belichick decided early in the week to again lean heavily on crowding his secondary and cutting off some of the inside cut lanes that the St. Louis wide receivers run so well.
Of the Rams' 69 offensive snaps, the Patriots were in a "nickel" or "dime" look nearly 80 percent of the time. They had five defensive backs on the field for 22 snaps, six defensive backs 26 plays and seven on a half-dozen occasions. It was reminiscent of the scheme used in the regular-season game but far more effective. Safety Lawyer Milloy guessed that the Patriots used about 10 different coverage combinations.
Almost as important as the coverages, however, was the physical manner in which the New England defensive backs treated the St. Louis receivers. The game plan called for some jamming at the line of scrimmage, but even more bumping in the five-yard zone, knocking the Rams off their precision routes and destroying the meticulous timing between Warner and his pass catchers.
Upfront the Pats used at least a half-dozen different looks, including three snaps in a five-man line, with one of those resulting in a Mike Vrabel rush that forced an interception. In a role reversal, a Belichick defense that has characteristically been designed around its linebackers, played into the strengths of its versatile front line and populous secondary.
At the same time, the Pats blitzed infrequently, eight times by unofficial count. The rush came from base people and the coverage from multiple "sub" packages.
"We were playing a little bit on the edge, because, with some of the stuff we did, we felt like they would have some people running free," Belichick said. "But our (secondary) rotated well and our front people got enough of a pass rush so that Warner couldn't always see when a guy popped open. You like to say it worked exactly how you drew it up, but sometimes you've got to have some luck, too."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.