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In NFL, stealers have edge

When teams are up to this old trick, it can pay off

What can a football team gain from filming and then decoding the opposition's defensive signals?

"I don't think it's any different from baseball - if you know a guy is going to steal, you're going to throw a pitchout and throw him out," said Mark Whipple, the former University of Massachusetts head coach and Pittsburgh Steelers quarterbacks coach.

"If you know what they're going to do, then you have a chance, and that's why coaches work so hard and work long hours. You try to turn over every rock and stone, and try to find something, especially in the National Football League, the most competitive league in the world.

"It always comes to one play, the fourth quarter, and if you can make that call, at that time, and you know what they're doing, it's a great advantage."

Whipple, 50, has coached football since 1979 in the college and professional ranks. In the wake of reports by ESPN and the NFL Network that the Patriots have been found by the NFL to have violated league rules regarding taping defensive signals against the New York Jets in Sunday's season opener, Whipple said he was always on guard - regardless of the opponent - while serving as Steelers quarterbacks coach from 2004-06.

Whenever he would speak with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Whipple always held a large play-sheet over his mouth, something head coach Bill Cowher insisted upon. He said he first learned such tactics while coaching under George Allen in the United States Football League in 1984.

"This goes back a long time, with spies and being careful about who was around," Whipple said. "George used to talk about it in his staff meetings, saying we're not going to have anybody come in, or have any information going out.

"I just always remember having an interest in it, being a political science major at Brown, studying the CIA and the World War, and how to collect information that could help you. When I coached in college, I wasn't as concerned about it, but in the NFL it's a whole another level."

One NFL assistant explained that the offense already has a built-in advantage because the quarterback has a communication device in his helmet that allows him to hear an assistant coach while in the huddle. If the offensive team identifies the defensive personnel on the field - and decodes the signal relayed to those defenders - it's possible the quarterback could be told what to expect.

Pulling that off can be tricky - there is always the chance that things could change immediately before or after the snap - but the possibility is why teams are so careful about concealing their signals.

"We are sharp enough to protect ourselves vs. the potential of something like that happening against us," said current Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin Tuesday. "Really, it's nothing new. When you see offensive coordinators covering their mouth - and that's been going on a long time - that's one of the reasons why that's done."

Tomlin, who as Vikings defensive coordinator last year was on the losing end of a 31-7 decision to the Patriots, said he had heard rumors that the Patriots often focused on "things of that nature."

"In terms of confirming it, it's never been confirmed in any instance, to my knowledge," he said. "But usually where there is smoke, there's fire. Those rumors are founded on something. So it's not totally shocking, no."

The Jets might have been aware of the Patriots' approach because their head coach, Eric Mangini, was an assistant in New England from 2000-05. The Jets video director is Steve Scarnecchia, who served on the Patriots' video staff from 2001-04 and is the son of Patriots assistant Dante Scarnecchia.

Whipple explained that studying signals all comes down to winning the chess match that is often taking place during an NFL game.

"If you know the coverages for the passing game and when a defense is going to come with a blitz, you can have the counter for those moves ready and it sure makes it a lot easier," he said. "Every offensive play and every defensive play has a weakness, and if you know ahead of time, your percentage for exploiting it is that much greater, which in turn increases your chances for success on that play."

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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