FOXBOROUGH -- The work of Bill Belichick's muted underlings was never more noticeable than during Sunday's 40-22 win over the St. Louis Rams, in these most challenging of times for these Patriots.
This was coaching at its best, proof that defensive backs coach Eric Mangini is a rising star on the NFL stage and an example of why special teams coach Brad Seely is considered by Belichick and predecessor Pete Carroll as one of the best coaches they've ever been around.
The inspired play of the defensive line showed that defensive line coach Pepper Johnson's passion as a player translates into his work. And coordinators Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel did top-shelf work in orchestrating an emphatic win against stacked odds.
Who did more than Mangini in preparing a wide receiver (Troy Brown), a rookie free agent (Randall Gay), a rookie safety (Dexter Reid), a practice squad player (Earthwind Moreland), and a linebacker (Don Davis) to fill out a depleted secondary against a high-powered offense?
Imagine giving Brown instructions on the fly on how to cover slot receiver Shaun McDonald and making sure he knew the coverages and the reads? Brown came out of it with two deflected passes and one questionable interference call.
Mangini, 33, wasn't about to let what happened in Pittsburgh happen again. He knew he wouldn't have cornerback Tyrone Poole (arthroscopic knee surgery) against the Steelers, but then he lost Ty Law with a broken foot in the first quarter. Patching up on the fly was too difficult, and the Patriots lost, 34-20. But with a few days to prepare, Mangini's coaching against the Rams was, according to one AFC general manager, "nothing short of brilliant."
The GM added: "When you give Belichick and his coaches time to make up for a big loss, this is what they do. You hate being the team playing them after they lose or after something went wrong, because they'll make you pay. Belichick is a great coach, but he has some assistant coaches that the whole league is watching."
This is why the Oakland Raiders offered Mangini the job of defensive coordinator but he turned it down to stay with Belichick. The job eventually went to former Patriots inside linebackers coach Rob Ryan.
Crennel is an early favorite to replace Norv Turner as head coach in Oakland next season, and if he takes that job, Belichick would likely have no problem promoting Mangini into the coordinator's slot. Don't forget that in 2000, before Crennel came aboard, a very young Mangini was by all accounts making some of the defensive calls and doing the defensive game-planning along with Belichick, who was acting as his own defensive coordinator.
"I think the assistant coaches, starting with the coordinators, did a good job this week," said Belichick. "There were a lot of adjustments in the secondary that Romeo and Eric had to deal with."
It was Mangini, Belichick said, who first approached him with the idea that Brown might be a decent defensive back given his athleticism and willingness to do whatever it took to help the team.
"We talked about that going into training camp, actually at the end of minicamp, and then we started doing that," said Belichick. "The coaches do a good job of looking ahead and not just seeing what the next day is going to bring, but trying to anticipate your needs through the course of the season or in future games based on who your opponents are and what you think you might be seeing the three or four weeks."
Nobody took the poor special teams work against Pittsburgh harder than Seely, who has been working on a fake field goal play like the one Adam Vinatieri and Brown pulled off since 1999, when Carroll was coach.
It would be interesting to learn why Seely called it when he did, but he, like all of the assistant coaches, is prohibited by Belichick from speaking with the media. Whatever the reason, his timing was impeccable.
The Patriots were up, 19-14, halfway through the third quarter and were set up at the 4-yard line for a field goal when Seely's trick play put a dagger into the Rams' hopes of coming back.
Seely made a quarterback out of a kicker and snookered Mike Martz and the Rams. The play came off without a hitch: Brown made sure the referee knew he was an eligible receiver, then caught a chest-high lob from Vinatieri for a touchdown.
"We're not a big fake-kick team," Belichick said. "I don't think it is that big of a deal. It was a nice play."
Do not underestimate Johnson's role in Mike Vrabel's lunging touchdown grab in the second quarter, either. It was Johnson's pass-catching drills with the linebackers that first showed that Vrabel could be a good candidate to be an extra tight end. The Patriots knew they had to win the defensive battles up front, so the ones in the secondary wouldn't be as perilous as they were in Pittsburgh. That's where Johnson came in again. The determination of Ty Warren, Jarvis Green, Vince Wilfork, and Richard Seymour, as well as the old guy, Keith Traylor, was a tribute to him.
Under the circumstances, it was impressive for the line to step up and pressure Marc Bulger into a few bad throws. In the end, it's the players who play the game and the players who deserve the majority of the glory and the blame. But the muted underlings had quite a voice in turning what seemed a dire situation at the start of the week into an impressive winning effort.