Sports Sportsin partnership with NESN your connection to The Boston Globe

Irreplaceable parts

Versatile defense a role model for playing it smart

HOUSTON -- Over the course of 10 NFL seasons, Carolina Panthers left tackle Todd Steussie has come to the realization that there's only so much that can be done strategically with 11 defensive players, even those being positioned and instructed by innovative minds such as Bill Belichick and Romeo Crennel. But Todd, no one ever said anything about there being a limit as to what those 11 players can do.

Nowadays, when athletes seem to be better served living by GMC's motto of "Do one thing, do it well," the New England Patriots' defense, which allowed the fewest points in the league during the regular season, comprises more generalists than specialists. Versatility is its calling card. The Patriots are a victory away from being kings of pro football largely because they have a defense rich with jacks of all trades.

Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, Roman Phifer, and Mike Vrabel aren't just linebackers. They are football players. Richard Seymour is not merely a defensive end. He is a football player. Jarvis Green, Dan Klecko, Ty Warren, Eugene Wilson -- football players. They are hybrids, "tweeners," players whose position designations require the use of hyphens and slashes. Players who defend the run as well as they do the pass, and pressure the passer as well.

"We pride ourselves on being versatile," Seymour said. "[We] can all play different positions . . . and we're all well-rounded players. We're every-down players."

And when Seymour, most of the time an end but sometimes a nose tackle in the 3-4 and a tackle in the 4-3, says "every-down," he really means every down. In today's NFL, "two-way" is the popular gadget that players carry on their hips. In New England, it also refers to players such as Vrabel, a collegiate defensive end who is just as comfortable placing his hand on the ground on offense as he is on defense; Belichick uses him as a situational tight end. Rookie defensive lineman Klecko debuted at linebacker this year, and often is used as a short-yardage fullback. Seymour also has made cameos in the backfield.

For a team that values substance more than style, it really is all about appearances when it comes to its defense. The Patriots have so many players with so many talents that what an offense sees is not always what it gets. Who's rushing, who's blitzing, and who's covering is a mystery.

The Panthers will attempt to solve it Sunday in Super Bowl XXXVIII. "A guy like Vrabel or Bruschi, they can possibly be in four or five different spots in any given package," Steussie said. "Three down linemen, four down linemen. Vrabel can be playing defensive end one time, middle linebacker the next time. You have to get prepared for everything."

That's because so many Patriots seem to be able to do almost anything. "It makes it hard for offenses to scheme for us," said McGinest. "Even if we're in a certain front, they don't know who's going to do what."

Again, it's because most of New England's defenders can and have done almost everything. When Belichick and Crennel teach their philosophies, they truly are preaching to the converted.

Take McGinest, the longest-tenured member of the defense. He's listed as a linebacker, but he often rushes from the end position in passing situations. He was a defensive end his senior season at Southern California and in the 1996 Super Bowl season. At 6 feet 5 inches and 270 pounds, he has the athleticism to handle a linebacker's responsibilities one play and do an end's duties on another. Depending on where he lines up in the formation, and what that formation is, offenses have to decide in the seconds before the snap whether to treat McGinest as a linebacker or an end.

Bruschi was an All-America defensive lineman at Arizona, where he tied the NCAA Division 1-A sack record. But he was better suited for linebacker at the professional level. Once he made the change, Bruschi started on the outside before moving inside two years ago. From time to time, however, the Patriots will ask the 6-1, 247-pound Bruschi to return to his college days and line up along the defensive line. "This week, this year, next year may be a different position," he said, "but I'll play it. I started out this year playing the `WIL' [weak-side linebacker], and I've been in the `MIKE' position [middle linebacker] most of the year. So I've always been an interchangeable part of Coach Belichick's schemes.

"We're interchangeable players, especially at linebacker with Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest," Bruschi added. "We all started at college playing defensive end. We all have that on our resume. We can rush the passer, and we can drop back into coverage and play man-to-man."

Vrabel, 6-4, 261, was an All-America end at Ohio State, where he is the school's career sack leader. He may be the most versatile of all the Patriots. He, like his fellow outside linebacker McGinest, rushes from the end position in passing situations. Vrabel can also line up over the center. He led the team in sacks this year, with 9 1/2. He's pretty good at stopping running backs, as well as covering them out of the backfield.

A pre-med major, Vrabel usually figures out a way to be pretty good at whatever the coaches ask him to do. "Mike's one of those guys when you give him something to do it's like he's been doing it for a while," Belichick said. "He's got a very quick learning curve and is very adaptable."

Phifer and Wilson had strong years despite making position changes. Wilson, the Patriots' first second-round pick last spring, made such a smooth transition from his natural cornerback position to free safety that he looked like, well, a natural. His coverage ability allows the Patriots to stay with their basic personnel package when teams bring in a third receiver. Just move Wilson over to corner. Or have him go to corner before the snap, then quickly back to safety. If you're Belichick and Crennel, you can do almost whatever you want. They wanted 35-year-old Phifer to play inside for the first time in his career. He played outside linebacker his first 12 years in the league, with coverage as his strength. This year Phifer split time between inside (nine starts) and outside (six), and was second on the team with 133 tackles (according to coaching grades) in the regular season. At 6-2, 248, he fits at inside linebacker in the 3-4 and outside linebacker in the 4-3.

"You have to be a genius. No, really, you have to be a flexible guy," inside linebacker Ted Johnson said. "And you can't be a guy that only plays one position or only one style."

It's been the Patriots' style to import players with broad skill sets. This year's first-round pick, Warren, played nose tackle and both end positions in the 3-4 at Texas A & M. New England preferred Warren (6-5, 307) over some of the more highly touted tackles in the draft because of his versatility and athleticism. He gives the Patriots options. Though he hasn't played very much in his first season, when he has he's seen time at the nose, end, and tackle.

Belichick and Crennel experimented with Green, a fourth-round selection in 2002, at nose tackle in training camp before acquiring Ted Washington. Green, having bulked up to 290, started seven games at right end and, like Klecko, is a situational nose guard. Often the first off the bench for Seymour or Bobby Hamilton, Green had two sacks in the regular season and three in the AFC Championship game against the Colts.

"In our personnel department, we look for good football players," Crennel said. "And football players can play in a lot of different systems. So once we get the player, we try to determine what that player can do and how much that player can do. The more he can do, the more we ask him to do. So guys like Vrabel, Phifer, and Seymour, because they're adaptable and can go from inside to outside, that makes it easier for us to come up with some multiple schemes."

The Patriots knew Klecko was a good football player. So they figured they'd take the 5-11, 283-pound lineman in the fourth round and decide what to do with him later. Who knew that would turn out to be linebacker, end, tackle, nose tackle, and fullback?

"We're in the meetings and we learn everything," Klecko said. "Even us rookies, [Crennel] stands us up and quizzes us sometimes just to see if we're paying attention. For us, it's smart to know all that, just because it makes you better on the field if you know what everyone else is doing."

The versatility isn't restricted to the front seven (linemen and linebackers), it extends to the secondary. Look at the defensive game plan against the Colts in the AFC Championship game. Ty Law and Rodney Harrison played mind games with Peyton Manning and his receivers, and the co-MVP threw four interceptions.

Belichick and Crennel are able to do so much because they have players who can do so much. Together, they leave offenses not knowing what to do.

"You have to have the players to be able to play in those schemes," McGinest said. "They've done a great job of bringing the athletes in to complement the schemes we run.

"There's a lot of versatility on our defense. That's what makes us a good, sound group. When you think we're going to do one thing, we can switch and do something totally different."

in today's globe
Super Bowl extras
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives