Defense a fun group activity
Unit does the job but doesn't care who gets credit
FOXBOROUGH -- You cannot, in good conscience, select a Most Valuable Player of the Patriots' defense and not be guilty of overlooking someone. Make that 10 someones. At least.
But if you just had to pick a defensive MVP -- Rodney Harrison? Tedy Bruschi? Roman Phifer? Richard Seymour? Willie McGinest? Ty Law? Mike Vrabel? Eugene Wilson? Tyrone Poole? Bobby Hamilton? Ted Washington? Wait, that's the whole defense -- be prepared to hear a long acceptance speech. And make sure there's room on the stage for all his boys to join him. Because, whomever he is, he really couldn't have done it without his teammates. So perhaps it's just as well that only two members of New England's defense were elected to the Pro Bowl. Truth is, if one goes, all of them should go. But since that can't happen, think of Law and Seymour as delegates.
The Patriots play exceptional "team" defense. The term is redundant, but realize that it isn't easy to get 11 to think and play as one.
And what exactly does "team" defense mean, anyway? "When I say team defense, it's that confidence on the part of the players and the coaching staff of knowing that pretty much everything's under control," coach Bill Belichick said yesterday. "I'm not saying everything's a 5-yard loss, but every play is relatively under control. You're not just holding on by your fingernails."
"When I was in San Diego," Harrison said, "and we had a great defense, it was similar to this where we had a bunch of unsung, no-name guys who were willing to do whatever it takes to get to the next level and [who were] not really worried about who gets the credit. And that's the main ingredient. Being unselfish and being willing to sacrifice."
Belichick can relax to an extent because defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and his staff oversee 11 full-time and six part-time employees who understand their job descriptions. It makes for a good working environment, one seemingly devoid of office politics. Vrabel, the team leader with 9 1/2 sacks, spoke yesterday about how much he enjoys "working" with Seymour and McGinest, and how crucial it has been that Bruschi and Phifer have shown up for work every day.
The Patriots aren't the type to spy on a coworker in the next cubicle. Each does his job and doesn't concern himself with how the next guy does his, even though, Vrabel says, a hallmark of a good defense is for everyone to know what the next guy is doing. That wasn't the case last year, when you heard a lot of pleas for guys to "just do their jobs" in the locker room. Run force was an issue with the 2002 Patriots; no one seemed to want to force plays into inside help. There's little, if any, of that this year.
That's because, when it comes to individual statistics, no one's keeping score. The Patriots concern themselves only with how often the opponent scores, which is not often.
"Instinctively, a defensive player's mentality is to make a play," said Belichick, whose two-gap system limits defensive linemen's opportunities for big plays. "And that's good. You want that mentality, but at the same time, when players try to make plays that are outside of their responsibility, sometimes the worst thing that can happen is that they could actually make them. That leads to, in the future, taking more chances, trying to do those things again and it not working out as well. "The best thing is when everybody takes care of their job. The back runs inside, you hope the guys inside make it. The back runs outside, you hope the guys outside make it. That's the mentality you want your defensive players and your defensive team to have. Not one guy has to make every play."
Bad things can occur when one or more players forget that. Example: "If you're the force player," Belichick said, "and your job is not to let the ball get outside of you, and it gets out there, well, there's nobody else that can do that. Everybody else is counting on you to turn it back into them."
The coaches can watch each week's game film and see the kind of plays being made that don't have columns on the stat sheet. "There's plenty of those plays where you put up the film and say, `That's a great play,' " said Belichick. "He doesn't make the tackle, maybe he's not even in on the play, but the fact that he played what he did so well, that made it possible for it to come back to somebody else."
You get a lot of that when you've assembled a group of like-minded players who embrace the concept of "team" defense. "Some players just can't understand it, they just can't buy into that, `It's OK for me to do my job and for you to make the tackle,' " Belichick said. "They only feel like they've done their job if they made the tackle. If they try to make it and miss it, [they think that] they're better off than if they just do their job and let the play go to somebody else."
Players such as Harrison, Bruschi, Phifer, Seymour, McGinest, Law, Vrabel, Wilson, Poole, Hamilton, Washington -- oops, did it again -- don't seem to mind when plays go to their teammates. Or when the credit follows.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.