NEW ORLEANS His name looks like it should be pronounced Brooshee, which doesn’t sound too powerful. But it’s actually Brewski, which befits the hard-hitting middle linebacker he has become.
In either case, 28-year-old Tedy (with one d) Bruschi is a pivotal member of the New England defense that will try to control St. Louis’ top-ranked offense in Super Bowl XXXVI tomorrow in the Superdome.
Despite starting just nine regular-season games, Bruschi was third on the team in tackles after finishing second in 1999 and 2000. More importantly, since he replaced the injured Ted Johnson in the middle in Week 11, the Patriots are 8-0 (including two playoff victories) while allowing 13.5 points a game.
“Tedy does a lot of things well, including playing on special teams,” coach Bill Belichick said. “He has a very good feel for the game. He’s smart, well prepared and very instinctive. He’s around the ball a lot. He’ll make plays because of his recognition and quickness rather than because the scheme is designed for him to be there.”
Bruschi, a star defensive tackle at California’s Roseville High School, began his college career at Arizona as an outside linebacker but was switched to defensive end as a redshirt sophomore. He set a school record with 19 sacks that season and was a second-team All-American. As a junior in 1994, Bruschi was a finalist for the Lombardi Award, given to the nation’s top lineman, and as a senior, he recorded 141/2 sacks and was a first-team All-American. His 52 career sacks tied Derrick Thomas’ NCAA mark, and his 74 tackles for loss ranked sixth.
However, NFL teams weren’t sure where the 6-foot-1, 245-pounder would fit at the next level. He was too small to play end and didn’t have the pass coverage skills to be a linebacker. So he lasted until late in the third round of the 1996 draft.
“My first day on the field, [then-Patriots linebackers coach] Al Groh realized he had to start from the ground up with me in terms of pass coverage,” Bruschi said. “It was the toughest transition I’ve ever had to make. Imagine going from offensive line to running back. Being three yards off the ball was a lot different, and I was used to having my hand down. It took me probably more than a year and half to feel comfortable at linebacker.”
Mainly a special teams player as a rookie for the AFC champions, Bruschi came on in the playoffs, recording two sacks and his first interception. He played a little more in 1997, and midway through the next season replaced injured Todd Collins as the starting weakside linebacker.
Bruschi kept the job in 1999 even though the Patriots drafted Andy Katzenmoyer to take his place. Bruschi started every game in 2000 and the first three this fall, but then free agent addition Mike Vrabel took over. Bruschi was a backup for six games and was even inactive once. However, when veteran middle backers Johnson and Bryan Cox were both sidelined, Bruschi moved into the middle. Johnson and Cox are healthy again, but they haven’t been able to knock Bruschi out of the lineup despite his relative lack of size.
“Tedy’s mentality makes up for his being a little smaller than some guys,” inside linebackers coach Pepper Johnson said. “He doesn’t look at himself as a small guy. Some big basketball players want to be point guards. Tedy’s the opposite. He’s a smaller guy who plays big. He has a big heart, and his desire is unmeasurable.”
Bruschi had nine tackles in New England’s divisional overtime victory over the Oakland Raiders and recovered a fumble in the AFC Championship victory over the Steelers in Pittsburgh.
He just signed a three-year contract extension, and with Cox unsigned and about to turn 34, perhaps Bruschi has found a new spot. But Johnson is signed through 2003 and is only 30. Strongside backer Roman Phifer is unsigned and on the verge of turning 34, so Bruschi always could move there in 2002.
“I’ll play wherever they need me,” Bruschi said. “It’s kind of like, ‘We need somebody to do this. Let’s see if Tedy can do it.’ Every time Bill has done that, I’ve shown him that I can. I don’t categorize myself as an outside linebacker, an inside linebacker or a pass rusher. I’m a football player. Put me somewhere and I’ll get the job done.”