On football

Patchwork secondary was in prime position

By Ron Borges
November 29, 2004

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FOXBOROUGH -- It is logical, if you coach offensive football for a living, to look at the Patriots secondary as presently constituted and see opportunity.

Until the game starts, that is.

It is logical to see a linebacker at safety, a wide receiver at cornerback, a kid who was cut by the Montreal Alouettes at another corner, a rookie at safety, another safety playing corner, guys all over the place who are not where the Patriots would prefer to see them and conclude the following: Money!

Until the game starts, that is.

It is not hubris to conclude after studying a secondary so riddled by injury that yesterday not only was the No. 1 corner out but so was the No. 2 corner and the No. 3 corner that you will be able to do certain things with the football. Things like average more than 1.2 yards per pass attempt, as the Baltimore Ravens did at Razor Blade Field on a rainy, muddy, slippery afternoon.

You come to these conclusions because you look on paper and you see Don Davis, the world's biggest safety, and Earthwind Moreland, the man the Alouettes had no room for, and Randall Gay, euphemistically known as a street free agent. You see Troy Brown, wide receiver by trade, playing pass defense. You see rookie Dexter Reid at safety instead of covering punts. You see these things all over the field and you come to logical conclusions.

Then the game starts and it all goes out the window and now you're standing in a littered locker room trying to explain how your offense threw for only 47 net yards on 35 attempts against such an alignment. You try but, at times, all you can do is shake your head at the handiwork of Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini, the architects of a remodeled secondary that has held up nobly for a month now against long odds.

"They shouldn't be able to get away with what they're getting away with but they're very sound," Ravens offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh said quietly as he stood trying his best to understand a 24-3 thrashing that came primarily because his offense was without its No. 1 weapon, running back Jamal Lewis, and was unable to exploit a secondary that on paper appears imminently exploitable.

"On paper is where you can get caught up," said Cavanaugh. "On paper you'd conclude they're going to have some problems but Romeo does a good job mixing up his coverages and understanding where their guys are vulnerable and covering up for them.

"They're not asking these guys to go play man-to-man. They're asking them to keep the ball in front of them. They're rolling the corners up and playing the short ball in the flat and giving them help behind and over the top. They're reducing the [size of the] field some of those guys have to cover and we weren't equipped yet in our passing game to expose that."

The one team that was, albeit in a losing effort, was the explosive Kansas City Chiefs, who found ways to force Moreland to play Eddie Kennison one-on-one and twice beat him for touchdowns and had a third one set up only to see Kennison drop the ball.

But when the Ravens were unable to run the ball early yesterday it took away the threat of the play-action pass that had made Boller's life easier the past two weeks. That left the Ravens with an inexperienced quarterback trying to match wits with a Super Bowl champion defense. Even a depleted one created problems Boller couldn't yet solve because it baited him into impatience and left him without the kind of weapons needed to force Crennel's defense into uncomfortable matchups.

"If we were a three- or four-wide receiver team, we would have had a lot more opportunity to expose their cornerbacks but we don't run that alignment much and we don't let our quarterback make decisions at the line of scrimmage," Cavanaugh said.

"Kansas City does that all the time. They use multiple formations. We're basically a two-back set and sometimes two tight ends. We're just not built to come out in three wides or four wides a lot to take advantage of them.

"They play conservatively, keep the ball in front of them, and try to force you to be patient. If we'd had some success running early we could have play-actioned them but they shut our run down and baited Kyle into some throws. We weren't patient enough dinking and dunking. Other times we had plays called against a three-deep zone and they played two-deep or a two-deep and they came out in three-deep. Kyle never got a clean look at any throws. Romeo does a good job at that. He has them well-prepared for your tendencies."

Crennel and Mangini have had to work overtime since injuries to Ty Law, Tyrone Poole, and Asante Samuel radically changed the face of their secondary. No longer could they simply assume Law would take away a team's best receiver and build from there because there was no one to lay the law down now that Law was lying down himself with a broken foot.

So, like a great musical conductor, Crennel improvised, playing notes few completely understand but all quickly learn to appreciate.

"They do a good job of scheming it up," Patriots defensive end Richard Seymour said of Crennel and Mangini. "They don't put those guys out on an island. They work to create mismatches for the offense instead of leaving us in situations where the offense is creating the mismatches."

This, of course, has its limits. A team like the Chiefs, with multiple formations and the ability to put fast, adept wide receivers across the field, created problems Crennel could not always solve. Still, not even the explosive Chiefs were able to hit this revamped secondary enough times to beat them which is, in the end, the point of it all.

What Crennel has done is realize his new secondary's vulnerabilities and protect his people from being exposed too often to situations their gifts make them ill suited to handle.

In the end, that understanding not only of his opponent's weaknesses and strengths but also his own team's has allowed the Patriots to survive the kind of loss at one position -- cornerback -- that might have fried many teams.

"Baltimore likes to keep it close with their defense, not commit mistakes on offense and pound at you until you wear down," Seymour said. "We wanted to force them to do other things, to make it difficult for them. In the second half we did the things we wanted to do. We forced them out of their game a little bit by taking away the run and making them do things on offense they aren't comfortable with."

So instead of the Patriots' rebuilt secondary being uncomfortable, it was the Ravens' still developing passing game that felt the heat, unable to take advantage of things they thought they could exploit and victimized at times by things Boller was too young to recognize and react to. From such a scenario pressure mounts, impatience grows, and the breeding ground for fatal mistakes is born.

"A couple of times I could have checked down but they baited me into stuff where things looked open but really weren't," Boller said. "I thought I could put it out there deep some and I didn't need to do that. But eventually it gets to the point where you want to take the dunks but you need to get some chunks.

"That's what they wanted. They want you to force those deep balls in situations where they're ready for them. Those guys did a great job stepping in. You hope you can exploit them. We tried but we weren't very successful."

That's because the game on paper isn't very often anything like the game on the field.

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