NEW ORLEANS The old adage that defense wins championships needs to be amended. Make it Bill Belichick’s defenses win championships.
Only four defensive-oriented teams have won the Super Bowl in the last 16 years: Baltimore last year and three which had Belichick running their defenses. They were the 1986 and 1990 New York Giants, for whom he was the defensive coordinator, and his New England Patriots, who controlled St. Louis’ record-setting offense and pulled off a 20-17 shocker in Super Bowl XXXVI on Sunday night in the Superdome.
“You have to limit the other team to a fairly low number of points to have a chance to win, particularly with our team,” said Belichick, whose 24th-ranked offense was the least productive to make the Super Bowl in 19 years. “We’re not going to win a lot of games 45-42. We need to play our game. That was the message I tried to get through to the team on Sunday morning. ‘[Its] not how many yards they get; keep them out of the end zone.’”
The Patriots, incredibly, even kept the Rams out of the red zone for the first 48 minutes. Rams coach Mike Martz said he was “getting darn frustrated” by that.
“That’s a great offense,” Belichick said. “The only thing we could do was to try to neutralize some of their great players and try to keep them off-balance. I don’t think there’s any way to just line up and shut them down. They’ve got too many weapons, too good of a system. We want to be a physical defensive team. We want to hit their [fast, smaller] receivers. We want to try to establish the middle of the field as our territory. We took some of the things away from the Rams that they wanted to try to do.”
The Rams had the NFL’s MVP in quarterback Kurt Warner, its top running back in Marshall Faulk, Pro Bowl receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt and a solid line led by Pro Bowl left tackle Orlando Pace. St. Louis led the league with 540 points, becoming the first team to score at least 500 in three straight years. The Rams’ 420.4 yards per game over that span is an NFL record. And in their previous 29 games played in domes, the “Greatest Show On Turf” had posted a 23-6 record and averaged 34 points.
But until they produced a two-touchdown, game-tying rally in the fourth quarter, the Rams had as many turnovers (three, all because of physical plays by the Patriots) as points on Sunday night. St. Louis generated 427 yards, just 55 fewer than in its 24-17 victory at New England in Week 10, but the seven fewer points made all the difference.
“The biggest thing that Bill does so well is understanding what your Achilles’ heel is and attacking it,” Martz said. “Then he does as good a job as anybody of getting the personnel matchups [he wants]. He makes full use of his talent as well as anybody.”
That was a lot easier in Belichick’s Giants days. Those New York teams had perhaps the greatest linebacking corps ever with Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor, nine-time Pro Bowl choice Harry Carson, Carl Banks and Pepper Johnson. Defensive linemen Leonard Marshall, Jim Burt and Erik Howard also joined Banks and Johnson in making at least one Pro Bowl.
In contrast, safety Lawyer Milloy is the only member of the New England defense who headed from New Orleans to Hawaii for Sunday’s Pro Bowl (his third). Cornerback Ty Law went three years ago. Bryan Cox was a three-time Pro Bowl pick for Miami, the last time in 1995, and fellow backup linebacker Willie McGinest was chosen as end from the 1996 Patriots.
Also, while Belichick and the Giants beat two first-time Super Bowl teams Denver (which had a different group of players than when it appeared in the ‘70s) with quarterback John Elway and not much else and the talented but unproven Buffalo Bills (Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed) New England defeated one of the top offensive juggernauts in NFL history and one which had won the title two years ago. No wonder it was the biggest Super Bowl upset since Joe Namath, quarterback of the AFL’s New York Jets, fulfilled his famous guarantee by stunning haughty NFL champion Baltimore 33 years ago.
Said Cox, “Bill said, ‘We’ll give you a better game plan than we did the first game. You execute it and we’ll win.’ He was right. We forced them to make some mistakes that they normally don’t make. It’s just a true testament to his mind and our coaching staff.”