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September 21, 2012
Rebuilding The Championship Patriot Defense
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net

Troy Brown was inducted into the Patriot Hall of Fame on Sunday. No argument from this typewriter.

Now, honk if you remember that, during the most recent championship season of the Patriots, the secondary depth chart listed some wide receiver/punt returner dude named Troy Brown. He had three picks in 2004, as many as Tedy Bruschi and one off of the team lead. His first career NFL interception was courtesy of someone he knew real well: Drew Bledsoe.

You have to stop and think for a second. The Patriots won a Super Bowl with guys like Brown, Earthwind Moreland, Randall Gay and Je'Rod Cherry in the secondary. With two minutes left in Super Bowl XXXIX, some guy named Dexter Reid gave up a 40-yard touchdown pass to Greg Lewis. All this with Ty Law cheering on the sidelines, out since the Halloween loss to Pittsburgh which ended the 21-game win streak, and soon on his way to the Jets.

These guys won the Super Bowl?

And the current guys did not?

This is being more facetious than analytical. The one thing that separates the teams that won the Super Bowl from the teams that lost the Super Bowl were that the teams that won had better defenses. Offense sells tickets, defense wins championships, so say the cliché lovers. The Patriots are living proof. Their defense from 2001 to 2004 was world class. The defense from 2007 to the present had some holes. And the Giants exploited those holes both times.

In the first two games of the 2012 season, it looks like the Patriots may finally be on their way to making their defense into a semblance of what it once was. A decade ago, Bill Belichick put together a wonderful mix of his kind of guys, and along with then-defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, molded that group into a unit which allowed Tom Brady and the offense to win three Super Bowls by three points in each case. Much is made over the fact that even between the best and worst teams in the NFL, the difference is not that much. In the Super Bowl, the Patriots played that point up to the hilt.

Don't look for another Troy Brown in the 2012 defense. And forget about another Mike Vrabel catching Super Bowl touchdowns or Richard Seymour as lead blocking back. Those days are gone. The Patriots don't have anyone at the moment who can provide that kind of versatility.

Which is too bad. Versatility was a hallmark of those Patriot championship teams.

On the defensive line, you had guys like Seymour, Bobby Hamilton, Anthony Pleasant, Ty Warren, Ted Washington, Jarvis Green, Keith Traylor, Vince Wilfork and Willie McGinest. McGinest could play either linebacker or down lineman and was the prototypical elephant man, the x-factor in the Patriot front seven. McGinest, Hamilton and Pleasant were veterans who taught the younger guys how to act like men and not boys. Washington needed to stay around longer here. Seymour is still in the league and wreaking havoc out in Oakland, but few other Raiders can match him in much of anything at all. Wilfork remains a Patriot and is one of the respected veteran leaders.

The linebackers were always solid. Bruschi, Vrabel, Roman Phifer, Ted Johnson and Rosevelt Colvin were stout, cerebral players who combined both talents to comprise a formidable unit. Belichick called Bruschi a "perfect player". Vrabel could catch touchdown passes and had no peer in football IQ. Johnson may have been the best run stuffer in team history. A hip injury curtailed Colvin's potential in Foxborough.

The secondary then, as it is now, was the least settled of the group. You had Law and Otis Smith at the corners for 2001, but after Smith left it was a revolving door at right cornerback. Between Tyrone Poole, Asante Samuel, Gay, Moreland and Brown, it was never really certain who "the guy" was. Lawyer Milloy and Tebucky Jones gave way to Rodney Harrison and Eugene Wilson in the safety positions. They were adequate to very good, but not as lockdown as the front seven.

So, what was it that those guys did that the two Super Bowl losers did not?

Forget the David Tyree catch. It was a freakishly lucky catch by a guy who never did another thing in the NFL after the play, and Harrison could not have defended the play any better. The champs who played in Super Bowl XLII were Seymour, Wilfork, Warren, Green, Vrabel, Bruschi, Samuel and Harrison. The game should have turned out 14-10 Patriots, as the Giant defense blitzed the Patriot offense into exhaustion until the Giants were too exhausted themselves. The defense had to win the game for the Patriots.

But it did not. Samuel had a game-ending pick sail right through his fingers just prior to the Tyree play. On the game-winning touchdown, Ellis Hobbs was isolated one-on-one with Plaxico Burress in the left corner of the end zone, a fatal matchup for the Patriots. Hobbs said he was hurt prior to the play, but even a healthy Hobbs doesn't defend the play. Hobbs was the critical flaw the Giants exposed on the Patriot defense at the right time.

Ask yourself this question: Put Law, Smith, Poole, Gay, or Samuel on Burress. Do the Patriots go 19-0?

Now fast forward to Super Bowl XLVI. Only Wilfork remains on defense who has a ring with the Patriots. This is a team too reliant on Brady, with a suspect secondary and a front seven who can stop the run but not so much the pass.

To their credit, the Patriots did hold Eli Manning and the Giants to only 21 points when the G-Men had the firepower at wide receiver to drop over 30 on your boys. But cornerbacks Kyle Arrington and Devin McCourty, who remain the starters in 2012, are no Ty Law and Otis Smith. They aren't even Tyrone Poole or Asante Samuel. They are at least better than Hobbs, Moreland, and yes, Brown.

Like Super Bowl XLII, the Giants had their mythical lucky play in the fourth quarter with the unbelievable pass from Manning to Mario Manningham (both names have the letters "manning" in them) for 38 yards. Like four years earlier, Patrick Chung, playing Harrison's strong safety position, could not have defended the play any better. McCourty, Antwaun Molden and Sterling Moore gave up 42 more passing yards between them, and the Giants took the lead on an Ahmad Bradshaw touchdown he accidentally scored a bit too early. Brady, thanks to receiver dropsies, could not respond, and the Giants beat the Patriots again.

That's two Super Bowls in which the defense gave up the winning touchdown late in the game. So, what was the big difference from the guys who won? The Rams dropped 14 on the Patriots in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XXXVI. Jake Delhomme was insane in the final minutes of Super Bowl XXXVIII, though both Harrison and Wilson had left the game due to injuries. Ricky Proehl caught touchdown passes late in both those games. And that long bomb that Reid gave up late in Super Bowl XXXIX? The Patriot defense really seems to wilt in Super Bowl fourth quarters, don't they?

Here is the one big difference: The champs made the plays, the runners-up did not.

Both Proehl touchdowns tied the game, not to give the opponents the lead. Lewis' touchdown against Reid brought the Eagles to within three, and the defense forced a Harrison pick to seal the deal on the next drive. When they had to, the championship defenses came up big. They put Brady in a position to win the games. It wasn't just one thing other than simply making the plays. Somehow, it didn't happen in Super Bowl XLII, but basically this was a stud defense that knew what it took to bring home the Vinces.

The fine line between winning and losing is never more apparent. Look at all the guys with rings who went 18-1 in 2007. For all Seymour, Wilfork, Bruschi, Vrabel and Harrison did in earlier years, why were they not enough to run the table in 2007? Maybe the loss of Crennel was the key. The Patriots haven't won a title since Crennel and Charlie Weis split after Super Bowl XXXIX.

The Patriots of 2012 don't care about the past, not that they can afford to. Brady's career window will soon begin to close. The defense needs to shut the door like it used to. Guys like Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower, Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Tavon Wilson and Chung need to listen to Wilfork like Seymour, Bruschi and Vrabel used to have to listen to McGinest, Hamilton and Pleasant a decade ago. Guys like Arrington and McCourty need to hunker down and start making plays like Law and Smith and Samuel and Poole. And Brown.

In the Belichick Era, the Patriots have won three Super Bowls by an aggregate of nine points and lost two by seven points. All close games, which point to the defense being the key every time.

Yes, Brady will someday be borne off to Canton. But any more rings on his fingers will be thanks to his defense and not so much his immortal talents.


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