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Football philosopher, defensive mastermind

There's no defensive question or offensive play that stumps Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

By DARRELL FRY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 3, 2002

NEW ORLEANS -- They talk about him as if his strategic defense skills are so advanced he could stop the speed of light, which, come to think of it, is close to what he's being asked to do today against the supersonic Rams.

Some coaches have reputations, and this is his. Show Patriots coach Bill Belichick your football virus and he'll formulate a vaccine.

For 27 seasons, this is what he has done best. Some coaches are great motivators. Some are ingenious offensive gurus. And then there are those such as Belichick, masters at devising defenses to stop anything that may come their way.

"He understands opponents well. He understands philosophies. He understands what teams are trying to do to his defensive schemes," linebacker Bryan Cox said. "And he understands what we need to do to attack their philosophies. I've played for some of the best coaches in this league. I've played for Bill Parcells. I've played for Dave Wannstedt. And Bill Belichick holds his own."

If players can be students of the game, Belichick is a Ph.D candidate. He tirelessly studies film. He keeps meticulous notes on other teams' tendencies. And he is fanatical about breaking down formations, schemes and team methodology until he understands it better than the people who designed it.

He is the quintessential football strategist, a plotting, analytical mind who believes games can sometimes be won long before they are played.

"I know he's always going to come up with something," cornerback Ty Law said. "He's always got something up his sleeve, but you never know. When you go up against him, it's like blackjack. You're going to lose."

Going into a game, Belichick typically draws on his vast experience. After almost three decades in the game, seven as coach, there isn't much he has not seen, no offense he has not faced at least once. Sure, every team throws in a few wrinkles from week to week, but given time, Belichick will see through those, then devise a maneuver to combat it.

He had become so good that last season he coached the Patriots without a defensive coordinator. But he relented this season, putting Romeo Crennel in charge while keeping his hand in everything.

Like a scientist guarding his cure for the world's most pressing diseases, Belichick is careful about disclosing his secrets, saying only, "I think I've learned a lot in the last 10 years. I've had a lot of experience and I've tried to draw from that and pick up on some things."

No matter, his results speak for him, particularly two recent ones. Though the Rams beat the Patriots during the regular season, it was Belichick's planning that led to the Patriots holding the Rams to 17 points and bottling up running back Marshall Faulk, who had 30 yards until gaining 53 on the final drive.

And Sunday, Belichick cooked up a defensive scheme against the Steelers in Pittsburgh that shut down the league's most feared rushing attack, holding them to 58 yards (running back Jerome Bettis had 8 on nine carries), well below their season average of 170.

"The big deal there was the emphasis he put on everybody filling their gaps in the running game and not creating seams in the running game, and he harped on it all week to the players almost to the point of brow-beating them about being where they are supposed to be and doing their job before they help out," Crennel said.

"We were able to have some success early with it, which got them out of the running game, which made it easier for us."

Planning against the Steelers is one thing. Doing it against the Rams in the Super Bowl on artificial turf is another. Unquestionably this will be Belichick's biggest defensive test to date.

"Bill Belichick understands how to attack philosophies and he understands how to convey that to his players and that's the biggest thing," Cox said. "Once he comes out of his room and he puts the game plan together, if you carry that game plan out, you're going to have a good chance of being successful."

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