The "Snub This!" Defense
New England players and fans alike were taken aback last week when the 2003 Pro Bowl rosters were announced and only two Patriots were on the list. Cornerback Ty Law made his third straight Pro Bowl and defensive tackle Richard Seymour his second in three years, but there many other deserving candidates.
"It is an honor to be chosen to go but it is kind of bittersweet too because even though we have one of the best records in the league, we only had two guys get selected," Seymour said. "It's sort of a shame and it just goes to show you how we still have so little respect across the league."
So which other Patriots should have gotten the nod?
"I definitely feel that [Patriots safety] Rodney Harrison was very deserving," Law said. "Definitely Rodney."
According to media reports, Harrison agreed and was downright surly on Thursday when he got the news about being left off the list. Angering Harrison is not recommended: the last time he was given some disrespect, it was Dolphins tight end Randy McMichael, and Harrison made sure McMichael made not a single catch in their next match-up. "You should have seen Rodney's eyes when Coach Belichick read McMichael's comments. He didn't react at all but you could see a look in his eyes, a look of real determination." After that game, Harrison made sure to point out to the media that he got his revenge: "No catches." Harrison meted out justice as he saw it.
But he is just one member of a defense that as a unit is having a terrific season. In fact, it is just about the best in the league: the Patriots went more than four home games this season without giving up a touchdown, a feat not accomplished since 1938. Opposing quarterbacks have been held to a paltry 52.8 completion percentage, the second-lowest in the league. Only one running back has gone over 100 yards against New England this season. The defense won a game in Indianapolis by stopping four goal-line plays in a row by the Colts offense.
The men that make it possible include Harrison; linebacker Tedy Bruschi (who leads the team in tackles with 127); Law and Seymour; linebacker Willie McGinest (who has been practically re-born this year with 6.5 sacks in just 13 games); cornerback Tyrone Poole and his six interceptions; and defensive tackle Ted Washington. Other than perhaps Washington, who missed six games this year with a broken leg, all of them deserve Pro Bowl consideration. But all but Law and Seymour were snubbed.
And all of them took the lack of respect accorded them personally. C
all it the "Snub This!" Defense. Or maybe the "Incredible Hulk" Defense – don't make them angry, you wouldn't like them when they're angry. It's certainly not too hard to imagine a certain wild-eyed missile of a safety roaring, "Rodney Smash!"
And Smash He Did
Harrison was a key part of a defense that was the difference in the Patriots' narrow four-point victory over the New York Jets on Saturday night. He had seven tackles and an interception. He also returned from what looked like a painful ankle injury in the fourth quarter to continue to apply pressure on Jets quarterback Chad Pennington.
But Harrison again was a just one cog in a wheel than ran over the Jets. In addition to Harrison's pick, four other Patriots got interceptions and there could have been at least two more in addition to that. Tedy Bruschi had the first; it was Pennington's second pass of the game and the Patriots turned it into seven points by scoring on the very next play (see below). Bruschi proved once more his football savvy and incredible athleticism; he crept towards the line as if rushing but then leapt up and made a great grab to come down with the ball. However, it was the first interception in his last five that he did not return for a touchdown.
The next pick was perhaps the biggest. Linebacker Willie McGinest, who was a terror this game with 11 tackles (leading the Patriots), a sack, and a forced fumble, tipped a Pennington pass and caught his own deflection, then rumbled 15 yards into the end zone. It put the Patriots ahead for good with a 14-7 lead early in the second quarter.
Ty Law got in on the action in the third quarter. The Jets ran receiver Santana Moss out and up to the back corner of the end zone but Law had perfect position, turning to look the ball right into his breadbasket for an interception and touchback, ending the Jets' scoring threat. The play was nearly identical to one the Jets had run at the end of the first half; had Law turned in time on that one it would have been an interception and he seemed to recognize the Jets trying the same thing on him later when he did make the pick.
Harrison's takeaway was the fourth and fellow safety Eugene Wilson had the game-sealing fifth interception with 45 seconds left in the match. It ended the Jets' hope of a comeback victory, and the Patriots were able to kneel down and let the clock run out on their 11-straight win.
Pennington helped the Patriots immensely. While he has proven a capable quarterback with a gift for the touch pass, he was not able to avoid a raft of mistakes. The Patriots defense was giving up huge chunks of yardage to the Jets, and in particular was simply not able to get off the field on third down: the Jets were an incredible 9-of-16 on third down, a 56% conversion rate that is usually a killer of defenses.
But Pennington's five interceptions, one of which was returned for the decisive score, were the story of the game.
The Patriots defense was not the only unit on the field; the offense did its part too, or at least just enough to win. On New England's first play from scrimmage, quarterback Tom Brady deftly avoided on-rushing Jets defenders and heaved a bomb of a throw just as he was about to be hit from both sides.
The pass went to a wide-open David Givens, New England's second-year receiver. Givens' touchdown went for 35 yards and it was his first of a night that would see him score both of the team's offensive touchdowns.
Givens is having his own minor version of a breakout year. That is, he is not recognized league-wide, but given his status as a seventh-round draft pick, it is remarkable that he leads the team in receiving touchdowns with five.
His second touchdown of the game went for just five yards, but it capped the opening drive of the second half and gave New England a 21-10 cushion it would desperately need. It was also a terrific play, as Brady was flushed from the pocket to his right, with Givens mirroring him in the back of the end zone. Givens slipped behind the coverage and into an open space, giving Brady a spot into which he could fit the ball.
Givens proved that he is a quality receiver but he also showed that he might want to stick with just being a receiver. With eight minutes left in the game and the Patriots then nursing a slim 21-16 lead, the offense looked like it was about to put together a solid drive towards closing out the game. Harrison had just intercepted another errant Pennington pass, and Patriots running back Antowain Smith followed it with an outstanding 13-yard run.
But on the next play, the Patriots ran a reverse to Givens. And instead of completing the run to the open field, he stopped, set his feet, and heaved the ball downfield in a trick play that was too tricky for its own good. Givens' pass did not have enough air under it and although fellow receiver Deion Branch was able to get behind the coverage, the ball could not, and New York's Tyrone Carter came down with the easy interception.
It was New England's only turnover of the game and it was nearly a very costly one. Carter's return gave the Jets better field position (at the New York 41-yard line) than they had before the Harrison interception (which Pennington threw from behind the New York 33-yard line). The Patriots defense forced a three-and-out but the offense was proving itself incapable of finishing off the opponent.
The offense's inability to put the game away is all the more astounding given the success of the Patriots running game. The Jets entered the game ranked second from the bottom of the league in run defense, but the Patriots were 28th in rushing offense: New England was the only team not to have a 100-yard rusher in a single game this season.
That changed Saturday night. Running back Antowain Smith had the kind of cold weather, pound-it-out night of which coaches and fans dream. He ran for 121 yards on 18 carries, a glorious 6.7 yards-per-carry average rarely seen of any running back let alone one from New England. He was also bull-rushing defenders on most of his runs, gaining valuable yards-after-contact and setting a tone for the offense.
Despite his production, it was not enough to bury the Jets. Smith had an impressive 23-yard run on his first carry of the third quarter, which helped to set-up Brady's second touchdown pass to Givens. But his other long or efficient (a single carry of over three yards) runs were not enough by themselves to sustain drives. The Patriots passing game, usually the team's strong suit, was only able to produce 138 yards. The best that can be said about the offense is that it took advantage of at least one of the Jets' mistakes, turning the Jets' first turnover into a 7-0 lead, while making few of its own (the Givens interception being the only one).
Still, Smith was a star for the Patriots, who continue to show an adaptability on a game-by-game basis that is the underpinning of a league-best 11-game winning streak.
Still Not Done
The Patriots command the best record in the NFL, a 13-2 record that is tops in franchise history. And yet there is still one critical game to go. If the Patriots beat the Buffalo Bills in Foxboro next week, then they will have won the conference's top seed in the playoffs, which brings with it the enormous advantage of a first-round bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
However, the Indianapolis Colts still have a chance to steal that bauble away from New England. For the Colts to pull it off, they have to have several events go their way: first, they must win their final two games (they play Sunday at home against Denver then next week on the road in Houston, neither easy but both winnable games), then the Patriots must fall to the Bills next week, and the Kansas City Chiefs have to beat the Chicago Bears. The Colts will be favored to win out, and so too the Chiefs should beat the Bears playing in Kansas City; therefore, the burden rests with New England. The Patriots' fate is in their own hands when the meet the Bills next Saturday at 1:30 p.m.
Please visit our patriotsinsider.com Patriots Forum to discuss what name should be given to this defense – The "Snub This!" Defense, the Incredible Hulk Defense, or some other original work of your own!