Patriots must again devise a way to fend off the assault
FOXBOROUGH -- Disguise. Disrupt. Destroy
Could that be the defensive strategy Bill Belichick and Romeo Crennel are concocting in the bowels of Gillette Stadium this week? That seems to be the sentiment of many coaches in the league and Patriots personnel in particular on how to throw the Colts' Peyton Manning off his game just enough to emerge victorious Sunday.
Yet Patriots players have hinted not to expect anything too fancy.
``You can't get into a situation where you're just trying to make stuff up just for the sake of making it up, just to give him something different, because at the end of the day, at the end of the play clock, you've got to play against what he's calling and you often don't know that until the ball is snapped,'' said linebacker Mike Vrabel.
``You have an idea based on the formations they're playing with the play-action and with the different routes they're using, but you can't just overhaul everything you've got. You still have to go back and play technique, which for us is playing physical and trying to be solid at the line of scrimmage and not give up three 50-yard runs, or the deep pass that they seem to score on every week."
Vrabel's idea of disruption could be "getting the quarterback to move his feet in the pocket. Get him to slide over 3 feet, to get a receiver 2 yards off his route, to jam a receiver. There's a lot of different things that go into rhythm in football."
That's why disguising defenses and disrupting offenses is what the Patriots do best. Remember Super Bowl XXXVI when Willie McGinest was beating up the Rams' Marshall Faulk every time he stepped out of the backfield? Or when Patriots defensive backs were smacking St. Louis receivers every chance they got to disrupt their routes? Remember the all-linebacker front seven they used against Drew Bledsoe and the Buffalo Bills in 2002 and against the Miami Dolphins this season? One never knows what to expect.
"I think you have to disrupt Peyton's timing and make their receivers have to work for everything they get," said Southern California coach Pete Carroll, who was 3-1 against Manning as Patriots coach. Carroll said some blitzing is necessary because "You've got to move him. You've got to get him out of that area where he's comfortable."
Carroll said allowing the Colts to run "wouldn't be the worst thing" if it meant you were shutting down the passing game. "You can't commit hard to the running game. There's really not one good way to play [Manning]. Back then he was a young quarterback, but watching the things he does now, it's awfully hard to think you can shut him down. You want to slow him down. That's all you can hope for."
Carroll, who still follows the Patriots very closely, feels the Patriots will prevail in the end. "I don't think anyone knows [Manning] better than Bill," Carroll said. "The success speaks for itself. So I think they'll find a way. I know their personnel is a little banged up in the secondary with Ty [Law] out, but they've won a lot of games over there without their full package of players. They've obviously found a way to make up for the losses of personnel, so I would expect they'd do the same this time."
Baltimore defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, who was in San Francisco to interview for the 49ers' head coaching vacancy, held Manning to one touchdown pass in the Colts' 20-10 win Dec. 19.
"You can't let him know what [formation] you're in at the line of scrimmage," said Nolan, who, at 45, is considered one of the best young coordinators in the NFL. "If he sees you're in two-deep or three-deep coverage or if he recognizes a corner blitz, he'll pick it apart. You have to get him to hesitate in his thought process."
With all the blitzing the Broncos did last weekend in a 49-24 loss, that didn't seem to disrupt the record-setting quarterback one bit.
The Patriots used a physical approach in covering Manning's receivers in last year's AFC Championship game. Law was accused of mauling Marvin Harrison, and that prompted Colts president Bill Polian, a member of the NFL's competition committee, to have league officials modify the 5-yard bump rule at the line of scrimmage.
ESPN reported that illegal contact penalties rose from 79 to 122 this season. Colts coach Tony Dungy sought out officials prior to the Denver game to ask if they were going to uphold the rule as they had through the regular season. Dungy was assured they would. Dungy likely will ask the same question Sunday.
The Patriots have said all week they want to be physical, but how physical can they be? With all of the Colts' weapons, the Patriots know they'll have to pick their poison.
"You can't cover everybody," Troy Brown said. "Who are you going to double team? If you do that, who are you going to leave open? Who are you going to leave one-on-one?"
It's possible the Patriots could use as many as six defensive backs in some situations. This week, the Patriots activated defensive backs Antwan Harris and Hank Poteat, both of whom have playoff experience. They also have rookie safety Dexter Reid back. But the onus will be on veteran safety Rodney Harrison and second-year players Eugene Wilson and Asante Samuel to keep the patchwork secondary together.
"You've got to stop the big plays," said Carroll. "You can't let Peyton just sit back there and let it fly down the field because he'll hit those. The scary part is even if you have a lead on him, he can get his team back in a hurry. No lead is really that safe against them. You have to be on the attack."
And remember the three D's -- disguise, disrupt, and destroy.