Anatomy of a win

Horse Tracks listed a great article on the possibility that we may be in a Golden Age of Offensive Tackles. It got me to thinking about a great Super Bowl where the offense was so good - sometimes called the Greatest Show on Turf, with Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk - that the defense of the New England Patriots had to take a new and slightly different posture on it's way to a stunning win. The Game was the super Bowl of the 2001 season, the St. Louis Rams with Kurt Warner at the helm - against the New England Patriots. Here's what went down...

The Patriots were 14 point underdogs going into the game. The Rams had put on an incredible offensive show during their Sherman's March through the league that year with often devastating results. Their three season offensive onslaught was still unmatched in NFL history - 526 points in 1999 when they would win Super Bowl XXXIV, 540 in 2000 and 501 in 2001 on their way to the NFC Championship. Tory Holt and Isaac Bruce each averaged 15 TDs over that time period. Each. With Mike Martz, a Civil War scholar at the helm, they had grown into the NFL equivalent of a super power. It was up to the New England Patriots to try to win the war against them, and the challenge was almost more than they could imagine.

The Patriots had already played the Rams once in November of that year and they, too, went down 24-17 under a barrage of throws by Kurt Warner. They had attempted the same approach that would later stymie them in the 2007 Super Bowl, blitzing Warner heavily. But this time, it went for naught. Warner was too quick, his release too fast and his outlet passes to Marshall Faulk constantly confounded the defense. The offensive tackles for the Rams were too good for the blitz packages to work. Facing the Rams for a second time, Belichick had to come up with a new defensive strategy. Rather than trying vainly to contain Warner, the Pats came up with a new tactic. They would shut down Marshall in order to confuse the Rams. 

After dozens of hours of watching and analyzing film. Belichick noticed that rather than trying to respond to the nearly endless onslaught of offensive plays that the Rams would be throwing at them, that he would have to limit his defense, He saw that while there were untold hundreds of plays, there was only a short series of concepts, about 5 in all, upon which the offense depended. By understanding those concepts, keeping to their defensive alignments and playing in their gaps, NE had a chance to win.

The coaches for the Patriots instructed the NE defenders to ignore their urge to try to determine what the Rams where doing on any given play - St. Louis was just too good at disguising their plays. No matter whether it looked like St Louis was running a play that the Patriots had seen before, they weren't - it was just more physical obfuscation. Instead,  playing their responsibilities, making the Rams respond to them instead of the other way around - was the only chance that New England had. Belichick suddenly realized that during the last game, New England had focused on the wrong player. St Louis had a left tackle who just couldn't be moved. He was too good. Warner? His footwork was like silk and his drop, decision making and release too quick. No, the answer, if they could make it work. would come from another perspective entirely.

The answer was Marshall Faulk. Kurt Warner had a simple way of getting out of trouble. He would always look to Faulk if the rush was too fast, the blitz too heavy. Screen passes kept the pressure from working. He and Faulk worked together as a seamless whole, and that was the key to understanding how to defend the Rams. Extensive analysis of the film had led to an inexorable conclusion.

What Belichick and his defensive coordinator found was that while the Rams had hundreds of offensive plays, they only had a handful of offensive concepts. They soon saw that when Faulk was in a 'home' position - behind the quarterback - he was likely, almost certain, to run the ball. When he was off-set, out to the side (usually the right, viewing from the defense), he would chip and/or release and would be catching the ball. he never stayed in only to block. He was too skilled, too shifty to defend against once he was out to the sides of the backfield. So, instead of having the defensive ends attack from the edges and harass Warner, they would hammer Faulk, disrupting his attempts to get free and take the pressure off of Warner. Bruce and Holt were going to get their catches, but without his safety valve, Warner was going to have a long game.

What else did the film reveal? Good as they were, the St. Louis tackles and guards often tipped when they were setting up a screen, with the tackles lining up deeper. The whole New England defense needed to look for that. They needed to accept that they couldn't tell which play was being set up, and not worry about it. They were to each play their assigned concept. Finally, they needed to constantly be physical wit the Rams. St. Louis was a finesse team, and they didn't like it when teams were physical with them.

It wasn't just the offense. The Rams were playing a near perfect Cover 2 defense, and it would almost play Brady to a standstill that game. He knew that he just had to get his guys lined up right, read the coverage, make his progressions and make the throws. The rest would be up to the defense. The Rams wouldn't make it easy. 

We all know what happened. The Patriots were still up 17-3 when the 4th quarter rolled around, but every defense eventually wears down. New England did. The Rams would tie the game at 17 all with 1:21 to go. It would take one more last minute drive for Brady to put them within position and Adam Vinatieri to ice the game in the final seconds. It was the culmination of one of the best Super Bowls in memory. All because Belichick and his defensive coordinator watched the film. Because every team has its tells. And because it takes the combination of great players and great coaches to win it all in the NFL>

What are the lessons for the Broncos fans? The first one is this - New England had to change it's defensive approach because the tackles were too good. They were a major reason that Warner could throw so easily, so often. How is that position for the Broncos? Right!

Second - No matter how good certain players are, every team has tells. Careful examination of sufficient film will reveal to the best coaches certain patterns, outcomes and tendencies that will reveal just exactly what the other team is going to do. The key is to have those kind of coaches and to have the players buy into this and trust that this will tip the balance of the game in their favor. Third - you need that kind of coach, that kind of coaching, to buy into what the coaches tell you, and to do your own job in order to really put something special together. Frankly, that's got to put some heart into the Broncos fans in 2009. This is the year that, for the first time I can remember, for example, that we have certain things going our way.

  • We have the best defensive backfield we've had since Atwater hung up his cleats. Since Dennis Smith roamed the field. Forget, just for this moment, the endless arguments over who we took in what round. We have seasoned veterans and strong young players at CB and safety. Do you recall the last time that was true? We have a head coach who has taken a long look at the team and set out an extensive plan for bringing it back to prominence. Do you know how many of our players from last year can't even get picked up by another team? These are men that, literally, no one else wants. And they aren't going to be in Bronco uniforms. They call that addition by subtraction, and sometimes you need that.
  • We are finally seeing real, in-depth coaching at all positions. We have been missing that for quite a while now. Sure, Bobby Turner is just danged brilliant and Rick Dennison does a great job with the O line, but we have needed in depth, modern coaching for the quarterbacks, linebackers, defensive line and the secondary. No one, in my opinion, would look at what was last year and prefer it to what we have.
  • After watching Coach McDaniels ability to put together game plans for the New England offense last year, I came to believe in his ability to break down film and create options for his team. No matter what did or did not happen with Cassel and Cutler and McDaniels, the simple fact is that Cassel has been a career backup, not someone who won 20 games in the NFL. For McDaniels to take him, teach him and to develop game plans that permitted him to achieve 11 wins last season is just incredible. That's the kind of coaching that wins games, much as New England did against St. Louis that year, and I'd like to have that guy on my side for a change.

Yeah, it's just another thought from a perennial SunnySider. But hey - that's all I seem to be able to see.

Originally posted at MHR

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

You can reach Doc at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or follow him on Twitter @alloverfatman

Doc's Musings