FOXBORO, MA — It’s time for New England head coach Bill Belichick to live up to his reputation.
New England brought the former defensive coordinator in because of his ability to devise defensive schemes that have stymied the best quarterbacks and players in the league. Thought by many to be a “defensive genius”, he has broken down and stopped some of the best offensive teams in the league.
He stopped the Indianapolis Colts earlier in the season and held them to a mere 13-points after they had come into the game having scored 45 and 42-points respectively in their first two games of the season. Whether or not that played any role in their 6-10 season is a story for another day.
What was more impressive was the way he held St. Louis to 24 points, one of only four times all season that a team held the offense better known as “the best show on earth” to under 25-points.
While the Oakland Raiders don’t necessarily possess the talent that the Rams have, New England won’t be able to ignore what talent that the Raiders do have on offense. Quarterback Rich Gannon finished the year throwing 27-touchdowns and only 9-interceptions, and had great protection having been sacked only 27-times all season (7th best in the NFL). They also have runningbacks Charlie Garner who rushed for 158-yards last weekend in a win over the Jets, and also Tyrone Wheatley who has been a very good situational back and scored five touchdowns this season.
Add in wide receivers Jerry Rice and Tim Brown, and it leaves Belichick with quite a challenge. His job now will be to shut one or as many of those as he can down, something that he himself admits isn’t going to be easy.
“I don’t assume that we are going to stop anything,” said Belichick on Friday. “I think we are going to have to establish that in the game and the plays that they call. When you are on defense you don’t have any control over the ball. All you can control is how you want to deploy your personnel and really what you want to try to stop.”
“I mean there isn’t really any defense that stops every single thing that the offense does or we’d all be playing it. ”
The defense they have been playing has been showing teams different fronts, switching personnel and using 4-3 and 3-4 fronts. It has confused quite a few quarterbacks this season including Peyton Manning who even showed frustration after their loss to New England earlier in the season in which Otis Smith and Ty Law each returned interceptions for touchdowns. “They rushed three guys the whole time and dropped eight guys,” Manning told reporters after the game. “That’s a lot of guys to throw against.”
Factor in that Belichick will bring safety Lawyer Milloy up to the line to help out with the run, and also use other defensive backs to blitz from the corners while rotating in coverage will likely leave Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon tentative. He’s already proven if he’s given time he’ll make the plays, and Milloy already has said earlier in the week he has every intention of keeping Jerry Rice and Tim Brown from being able to make plays over the middle.
They’ve been able to stop teams inside the red area despite giving up a lot of yardage (349.1-yards per game, 23rd in the NFL), but the Raiders are very proficient in that area. Stopping them is a whole other story.
“Defensively this is a real challenge for us with the Raiders being one of the top red area teams in the league and also the number one team on the goal line,” said Belichick. “I think they are over 90 percent inside the five yard line, so it is just another example of the efficiency that they have shown on offense.”
“That’s a real good phase of their game there and also on the defensive side of the ball, third down, they are one of the top third down defenses in the league. [That’s] just a couple of areas that we want to devote a little extra attention to.”
Putting pressure on Gannon is something they’ll need to Saturday night, especially after watching how much time he had against New York last weekend. The Jets weren’t able to disrupt him very much, and the result was an afternoon where he missed only six passes and was sacked only once.
Belichick says that if that happens again fans will simply watch the Raiders march up and down the field.
“I think in order to defend the passing game disrupting the quarterback is part of it,” said Belichick. “Obviously there are two elements involved, one guy is throwing and somebody else is catching. So you want to disrupt the guy that is throwing and you also want to disrupt the guys who are catching.”
“If you can do one or the other, then you are going to have some degree of success that way. If you don’t disrupt either one, then Gannon will probably be about 85 percent completion and they’ll move the ball up and down the field.”
He came to New England because he was known for shutting teams down. Saturday night fans will find out first hand if that reputation also applies to the postseason.