Pats DBs thrive on big hits, picks

The Patriots secondary has spent the season pummeling receivers and beating them into submission.

Updated: January 28, 2004, 3:02 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

HOUSTON -- With one of the more dubious decisions in recent Super Bowl history, an ill-fated attempt at broadening the eclectic mix of entertainment options, NFL officials a few years ago allowed an ancillary event featuring the controversial group 2 Live Crew.

And in announcing the accompanying news conference via the internal messaging system at the media center, Lee Remmel, the esteemed public relations director of the Green Bay Packers, was forced to unwittingly plug the group's raunchy album in his trademark stentorian tones.

Everything we do is legal. But we're going to take it right up to the line, to push the envelope right to the limit. That's just how we like to play it.
CB Tyrone Poole

The title: "As Nasty As They Wanna Be."

A few years after "As Nasty As They Wanna Be" was deemed a tad too edgy, it is back at the Super Bowl, returning for a command encore performance. This time, though, the rap anthem is hiding out in the New England Patriots' secondary.

Nasty? Over the edge? Loud? Even borderline obnoxious? Yep, those head-bangers who make up a secondary unit Patriots coach Bill Belichick regards as the best he's ever had are all of the above and then some. As nasty as they wanna be? You betcha.

Instead of pounding on drums, they have spent the year pummeling receivers, and beating them into submission. And in Super Bowl XXXVIII, against a suddenly potent Carolina receiving corps, the New England defensive backs plan to crank up the decibels as well as the destruction. Heck, they could get even nastier than they wanna be, if possible.

Never mind 2 Live Crew, because the Patriots might be bringing a wrecking crew for a second Super Bowl appearance in three seasons.

"To tell the truth, I never really thought of myself as a big hitter in college," said Eugene Wilson, the rookie starting free safety, who switched from cornerback to a totally foreign position after the first game of the regular season. "But you get around these guys and it kind of gets contagious. It's a physical bunch, but it's also a group that is very athletic. I guess we can play it any way we have to, given the situation."

Fact is, the Patriots, who statistically ranked 15th against the pass in 2003, are reflective of the ongoing evolution in NFL defensive play. Defense has become more backloaded than front-ended in recent seasons. Coaches still covet great front-four players but, with the defensive line positions increasingly difficult to fill, the emphasis has moved now to the so-called "back end."

The New England scheme is still marked by a mind-numbing array of front-seven looks, as Belichick and coordinator Romeo Crennel move bodies in and out of three- and four-man fronts. But it is the secondary, led by veteran cornerback Ty Law and strong safety Rodney Harrison, that stokes the fires of a defense that ranked No. 7 overall in 2003.

"Best group," said Law, "I've ever played with. And I've played with some good people."

In the regular season, the secondary led the NFL in interceptions (29) and in passes defensed (123). Every starter had at least three pickoffs and nine pass deflections. Law and his new cornerback partner, veteran free agent acquisition Tyrone Poole, each posted six interceptions, and the tandem combined for an incredible 44 pass knockdowns. In the postseason, New England has five interceptions, including four in the AFC championship game against Peyton Manning, and eight passes defensed in two outings.

During the team's 14-game winning streak, the Patriots have 30 interceptions, with at least one in each game.

As nasty as they wanna be, the New England secondary also combines athleticism, awareness and a vast array of coverage packages. Against Manning, the unit played in a "2-Man" look virtually the entire day, with the cornerbacks up in "press" coverage and protected by safeties over the top. But there have been matchups in which zone was the order of the day and, in most "nickel" situations, the Pats will be in a "quarters" look.

"We can do it all," said Poole, originally signed as a "nickel" defender, but elevated to the starting lineup in the preseason. "If you're playing (quarterback) against us, you better be able to squeeze the ball in some tight places, because you're not going to get much room. Our (philosophy) is that, when the ball is in the air, it's ours as much as it is yours. I mean, we have people who move to the ball remarkably well."

Pats re-configured secondary
Pos. Super Bowl XXXVI Super Bowl XXXVIII
RCB Otis Smith Tyrone Poole
FS Tebucky Jones Eugene Wilson
SS Lawyer Milloy Rodney Harrison
LCB Ty Law Ty Law
Nickel Terrell Buckley Asante Samuel
Even more remarkable, however, is the manner in which the Patriots secondary was able to galvanize despite some early-season trauma. Venerable cornerback Otis Smith was cut during preseason. Then, in a stunning move, New England released starting safety and team leader Lawyer Milloy five days before the regular-season opener.

After the opening-game debacle at Buffalo, a shutout loss, Wilson was apprised he was moving to safety, replacing the overmatched Antwan Harris. A second rookie, fourth-round choice Asante Samuel, was elevated to the starting "nickel" spot.

The result was a secondary that featured three new starters from a year ago, and looked nothing like the unit that smothered the St. Louis Rams receivers in Super Bowl XXXVI two years ago. Oh, yeah, the other result: The Patriots surrendered more than 250 net passing yards in only three contests.

"It could have been a chaotic situation, for sure, and it would have been on a lot of other teams," acknowledged Harrison, signed as a free agent after nine seasons in San Diego, of the sudden makeover in the secondary. "But there is great leadership here, and the young players are more mature than their years, so we pulled it together."

And now, come Sunday, the secondary is ready again to separate the Carolina receivers from the football. Because as much as they love to play coverage in general, the Patriots defensive backs relish contact, and "laying the wood" to an opponent. Against the Colts, the Pats brought enough wood to construct a new house, battering Indianapolis receivers and all but mugging them all the way up the field.

Belichick reminded his charges during the week of preparation that game officials are loathe to throw too many flags in the postseason, that they would tolerate more contact than usual, and permit a more physical style in the secondary. And so the New England secondary jammed receivers at the line, never allowed a facile release, and maintained contact even beyond the five-yard legal limit.

Since the Pats coaches never disseminate the same game plan two outings in a row, the Carolina receivers can expect some sort of changeup. They can also expect, though, to have defenders' hands all over them, and to have New England corners and safeties taking aggressive runs at them.

And, oh, yeah, they can expect to be hit. Hit hard. Because, in a Super Bowl setting, how nasty does the Patriots secondary wanna be?

"Everything we do is legal," said Poole, who, ironically, began his NFL career as a first-round Panthers draft choice in 1995. "But we're going to take it right up to the line, to push the envelope right to the limit. That's just how we like to play it."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

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