Secondary Really Put It On ‘Em

Bob George
March 2, 2002 at 9:22 am ET

Next in a series of articles on the 2001 positional analysis of the New England Patriots. Today’s feature: Secondary

Ty Law spoke for his whole team on the victory stand, not just for his guys.

By “his guys”, we mean Otis Smith, Lawyer Milloy, Tebucky Jones, Antwan Harris, Matt Stevens, Terrence Shaw, Terrell Buckley, and all those battering rams who were out to batter Rams all day on February 3, 2002.

We put it on ‘em.

Technically, they put it on ‘em all season long. But in the Super Bowl, Law and his gang of hit men played one of the most memorable secondary performances in recent memory. The punishment the Patriot defensive backs put on all those Ram speed burners was perhaps the real key in the Patriots becoming world champs.

And as Law experienced the football version of ecstasy, the legacy of his unit became secure in the lore of Patriot football. For a group that once boasted Mike Haynes and Tim Fox in the same backfield, then later Ray Clayborn, Ronnie Lippett and Fred Marion, this gang was the best ever in team history. The molding of this unit underwent some turbulent times and some took some curious twists, but the finished product was a solid group built in the mold of Bill Belichick, and which carried out one of the most impeccable and historic game plans in NFL history.

Law’s return of an interception for a touchdown in Super Bowl XXXVI instantly became the pinnacle of an All-Pro career. It was just another pick otherwise, except in came in one of the biggest spots possible, and it gave the Patriots the first real feeling that they could win the Super Bowl. But for Law, the biggest moment of the season came earlier in an informal meeting with the coaches about the style and manner of coverage.

Word came out just prior to the postseason that Law asked the coaching staff if he could play receivers tighter, which he was allowed to do under the Pete Carroll/Steve Sidwell regime. During the Oakland playoff snow bowl, some fans were watching Law cover Jerry Rice and wondering why all of a sudden Law had returned to previous form. Law was given permission to cover tighter, and the rest is history.

Law shut down Rice, then helped shut down Plaxico Burress in the AFC Championship Game. In the Super Bowl, he generally drew Isaac Bruce, and never permitted him to be a factor (Bruce had only 56 receiving yards in the Super Bowl). Allowed to return to his tighter cover style versus the seven-yard cushion (more in line with a “read and react” system), Law consequently returned to the form that got him his handsome contract a few years back.

Law and Milloy went to Honolulu, and not by accident. Milloy remains the heart and soul of the defense, if not the entire team. There may be more heralded strong safeties in the game (John Lynch, for example), but few men around the NFL mean more to their team than Milloy, and calling Milloy “underrated” is not that big a stretch.

Milloy remains one of the best run stoppers on the team, especially with the reduced role that Ted Johnson has had in the last few years. His ferocious style of play rubs off on most everyone on defense, and save perhaps for Bryan Cox, who needs no such motivation, the defense really feeds off him. Milloy takes a back seat to nobody in his ability to dish out punishment and instilling intimidation and fear.

But Milloy’s biggest gift to the team may be as its chief spokesman. As one of the team captains, he has a leadership role anyway. But he is one of the more vocal Patriots, who is never afraid to tell it like it is, good or bad. That may be why he was the first player to speak at the victory rally, and that he seemed to be the ringleader, the straw that stirred the drink. He cracked the jokes with Bob Kraft, made the folks chant “MVP” when Troy Brown was introduced, and made the crowd chant “We’re Number One!”.

All things considered, Smith turned in a remarkable season. At age 36, Smith made a case for being the Jack LaLanne of the NFL. How can a man his age play Tim Brown, Hines Ward and Torry Holt so well in three successive postseason games? Smith returned to the Patriots last season after a brief stint with the Jets, and was one of the holdovers from Super Bowl XXXI. Suffice it to say that he covered Holt a lot better than he covered Andre Rison five years ago.

Smith led the Patriots in interceptions with five, and returned two picks for touchdowns. Smith was perhaps a big benefactor of Belichick bringing in Romeo Crennel to run the defense, as Smith looked confused frequently in 2000. This year, with Crennel in there to do all the little things that Belichick couldn’t do last year, the results speak for themselves. There were fewer coverage breakdowns, and Smith wasn’t usually made to look foolish in coverage situations.

Smith had a Super pick, just like Law did. His pick set up a field goal, but it served also to punctuate his fine season. His age may be a reason why the Patriots may look to Leonard Myers in 2002, but don’t count out Smith being ready to give it another solid go next year. He is in outstanding shape, and fits Belichick’s system just fine.

Of all the secondary members, Jones had perhaps the most satisfying season of all. He has come full circle, from being laughed at as a “press corner” neverwillbe when drafted in the first round in 1998 to perhaps the hardest hitter in the Patriot secondary. He was a solid bust. Now he’s just solid.

The experiment to convert him to a cornerback was ludicrous and thankfully halted. Jones was thought of as a bust because the Patriots could have had Sam Madison instead of a safety trying to learn how to swivel his hips. But put back into his natural position, Jones now has become the long-term replacement to Willie Clay, and while it still may not justify his high drafting, it has finally turned into a positive for the Patriots.

Jones’ peak moment should have been in the Super Bowl, but it really was in the December Miami game. On two occasions, Jones delivered crushing blows that caused lost fumbles. The hit he laid on Lamar Smith near the Patriot goal line turned out to be the key play in that game.

In the Super Bowl, Jones set the tone for the entire game. On the Rams’ fourth offensive play, Holt ran a crossing pattern and headed for the left sideline. Kurt Warner was under pressure and led Holt too far out of bounds. Jones was right there as the ball sailed beyond Holt’s reach, and Jones clobbered Holt with a thundering hit that would become the signature of the Patriot game plan that day. Had Jones’ 97-yard fumble return been allowed to stand, his hit on Holt would still have stood as his most important contribution to the Patriot victory.

Jones still doesn’t cover receivers well. But as a free safety, his inability to turn and twist isn’t really a big deal. All he has to do is to play center field, and run straight at a potential receiver. If nothing else, just the fear of being clobbered by Jones will prey on the minds of the receivers who have run the intermediate and deep routes, and help the cornerbacks who have to cover them.

Stevens has left the roost, claimed by Houston in the expansion draft. That means that Harris is next in line to back up Jones. Remembering Harris’ thundering hit on Ricky Proehl in the Super Bowl that caused a lost fumble, Harris may be able to step up and claim that job. If nothing else, Harris has a role on special teams. Just ask Kris Brown and the Steelers.

Myers came on board last year as a heralded rookie, and enjoyed a good camp. Once the regular season began, injuries curtailed his burgeoning career. Myers may be the heir apparent to Smith’s job, but perhaps not yet. Myers ought to stick around as a backup corner.

With Shaw released and Buckley likely to leave, the Patriots may be ready to give 2001 draftee Brock Williams of Notre Dame a close look. Williams was hurt in camp and missed the whole year, but some scouts have labeled Williams a “project”.

Hakim Akbar was also injured for most of 2001, and encountered some minor legal hassles as well. If he has a role in 2002, it will be as backup strong safety to Milloy. That would fit well, in that Akbar is a fellow Husky alum and has been called “the next Lawyer Milloy”. But Akbar may have a lot to prove to the coaching staff after what can only be called a disastrous first year.

The theme of the Patriot secondary will continue to be “put it on ‘em”. The Patriots are loaded with hard hitters all over the secondary. Belichick was the defensive backs coach during Super Bowl XXXI. It is a position that he takes great interest in, and will always make sure it remains a “put it on ‘em” group.

And they will always know that in shutting the Rams down, they put it on the best. Their confidence will never be hurting in 2002.

Next feature: Special teams

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