Pats' 'D' makes scoring scarce
Published: Friday, January 30, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 30, 2004 at 12:02 a.m.
HOUSTON - Eugene Wilson joined the New England Patriots with the wide-eyed excitement of any rookie. That lasted exactly one game.
After spending all of training camp - all of his life, really - learning to become an NFL cornerback, the Patriots switched Wilson to safety just after the season started. From then, it was back to work trying to learn a position he had never played before.
''They told me the day after the Buffalo game - my first game,'' Wilson said. ''At first, I thought it was a joke.''
It wasn't. It was his introduction to life under Bill Belichick, and Wilson gave the exact answer the coach was looking for.
''I said, 'All right, as long as I'm going to be able to get out there and help us win,' '' Wilson recalled this week. ''Coming in as a rookie, I was looking forward to playing corner. The thought of safety never crossed my mind. It happened, and I took it for what it was and tried to make the best of the situation. I feel like it turned out pretty well.''
The Patriots are in the Super Bowl with a defense that allowed the fewest points in the NFL this season. Wilson tied for the rookie lead with four interceptions while starting the last 15 games of the season - all of them at safety.
In that sense, Wilson was the picture of stability: Only Tedy Bruschi stayed in one place the whole season, and even he has to change positions when the Patriots switch from an alignment with three lineman to one with four.
''You have to be kind of versatile to play in this system,'' linebacker Willie McGinest said as the Patriots prepared to play the Carolina Panthers. ''That's what makes us a good, sound group. Everybody depends on everybody else to do certain things. When you think we are going to do one thing, we can switch and do something totally different.''
And sometimes, no one is more surprised than the Patriots themselves.
''I had no idea what to expect,'' said Dan Klecko, a defensive tackle who has played four positions on defense, plus special teams and a few downs here and there as a fullback. ''Coach Belichick, he likes to simplify things. But they did throw linebacker at me, fullback at me and all special teams. So I was a little surprised.''
Belichick's schemes rely less on superstar talent than the kind that can be plugged into roles where they're needed. Linebackers Bruschi, McGinest and Mike Vrabel were all lineman at some point in their careers, so they are equally comfortable in the pass rush and pass coverage.
''We are interchangeable players,'' Bruschi said. ''We all started at college playing defensive end. We all have that on our resume. . . . You know that you will play more than one position.''
The Patriots' coach insists he doesn't fixate on versatility, but it is an advantage to go into games knowing that he has options. It's not as if he decided: ''Well, you know, we've got Mike Vrabel, and here's eight things we're going to do with him,'' he said.
''He's a very smart and versatile guy. Mike's one of those guys, when you give him something to do, it's like he's been doing it for a while,'' Belichick said. ''You can tell he's comfortable doing a lot of different things, and he enjoys it.''
That versatility also allows the Patriots to switch their alignment without having to substitute players. Not only does it make it easier for the defense to react to offensive switches, it can also make it difficult for the opponent to figure out what the defense is doing.
''Everybody looks at Bill Belichick and they see a lot of different stuff, with the way he uses personnel, changing up. People wonder what he'll come up with in two weeks'' of preparation,'' Panthers receiver Mushin Muhammad said. ''That's ... what Bill Belichick can do to confuse teams. He has the track record.''
The Patriots like to play up the team concept - they declined individual introductions before the Super Bowl two years ago - and on defense it's easy to see why.
Nose tackle Ted Washington clogs up the middle to open up space for the other defensive linemen. Cornerbacks Ty Law and Tyrone Poole cover their men so well that the safeties are free to blitz. Everyone else moves around where they're needed.
''Football is the ultimate team sport. We believe that,'' player personnel director Scott Pioli said. ''Individuals go to Pro Bowls, and teams win championships.''
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