Darth Hoodie. The Hooded One. Bill Belicheat. BB …
Many are the nicknames commonly associated with Bill Belichick.
Few are the amount of nicknames Bill Belichick pays any mind to.
One is the number of nicknames Bill Belichick wears as a badge of honor: defensive genius.
With the Patriots floundering in defensive mediocrity for the better part of the last decade, it appears the defensive genius has been on a ten-year hiatus.
With a roster built to mirror the 2003 Patriots, though, the defensive genius is set to make his return in 2014.
For this week’s article, I wanted to go back, research each Belichick-era Patriot team, and try to find a comparable roster to the one we’ll be watching come 2014. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the 2014 team closely resembles the ’03 team. Lofty, I know, but apt. In fact, 2014 appears to have been structured with 2003 in mind; a sort-of “back to the future” approach to building a championship roster. Below, I’ve outlined some of the notable similarities between the two teams. Briefly, here’s what the 2003 team was able to accomplish en route to their second Super Bowl in three seasons:
- After winning 10 regular season games in 2002, the team went 14-2 in 2003;
- Finishing undefeated at home, the team was nicknamed “Homeland Defense”;
- In a span of 16 regular season games, the Patriots posted 3 shutouts (during the last 160 regular season games—2004-2013—the Patriots have posted 5 shutouts);
- The Patriots finished first in the NFL in points allowed per game, giving up only 14.9/game; and
- On offense, the Patriots averaged 21.8 points per game on offense, the lowest total since Brady became a full-time starter in 2002.
First the bad news: with the never-ending shift towards offense-first football, it’s unreasonable to expect the defense to dominate the same way the ’03 team did. The good news: the Patriots have the defensive personnel to closely mirror that of the ’03 team. More good news: on offense, the 14’ Patriots should be far superior.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the similarities between the two teams, both from a philosophical standpoint, as well as from a personnel standpoint.
In 2003, the Focus was to Bring in Impact Defensive Players
Prior to the start of the 2003 season, the Patriots made an effort to sign impact free agents, specifically on defense. With the addition of Rodney Harrison, Tyrone Poole, Larry Washington (trade), and Roosevelt Colvin, the Patriots hit a home run: Harrison started all 16 regular season games, earning All-Pro honors. Tyrone Poole finished the regular season with 6 interceptions and 3 forced fumbles. And Washington helped anchor one of the most dominant run defenses in the league. Colvin— who was the most notable addition of the group—was lost early in the season due to injury.
Absent Harrison, Poole, and Washington, the Patriots would not have hoisted the Lombardi in 2003.
From 2003-2013, however, the Patriots’ approach to free agency appears to have been flawed. Absent the big-money signing of Adalius Thomas in 2007, the Patriots favored a conservative, low risk, high reward approach when it came to signing free agents. That’s not to say the Patriots approached free agency any differently in 2003, but perhaps 2003 represented an exception–an outlier to the rule–that states “you get what you pay for.” Fortunately, 2014 marks a decided philosophical reassessment.
With the addition of Darrelle Revis, as well as Brandon Browner, the Patriots may have the best duo at cornerback since Bill Belichick joined the team in 2000. What’s more, if the Patriots can get anything from the recently signed Will Smith, then it’s not unreasonable to expect a defensive impact similar to 2003: after the myriad of free agent mistakes over the last decade, I still have a hard time believing that Darrelle Revis is a Patriot. Bravo, Bill. Bravo.
Physicality Was the Calling Card on Defense
In 2003, the Patriot defense dominated with physicality. They had an edge to them—a “punch you in the mouth” mentality.
With Rodney Harrison patrolling the middle of the field, opposing wide receivers thought twice before coming across the middle. Led by Ty Law, the secondary spent all of 2003 imposing its will on wide receivers at the line of scrimmage; such physicality brought forth a change in the rules: in 2004, officials were instructed to bear down on defensive holding, as well as illegal contact. *We’re looking at you Mr. Polian.*
Up front, the Patriots dominated the line of scrimmage, allowing a lowly 89.6 rushing yards per game, good for fourth best in the NFL. To that end, it’s easy to understand how the 2003 Patriots (1) had three shutout victories (2) went undefeated at home, and (3) were the cause of a rule change as a result of their play on defense. Simply put, they won with physicality.
The same can’t be said about the majority of Patriot defenses since 2003. What’s more, not only have they lacked physicality, but they’ve also lacked talent. That should change in 2014.
Similar to Rodney Harrison, Brandon Browner will bring tone-setting physicality, of which has been lacking for far too long in New England. Similar to Ty Law, Darrelle Revis will be counted on to shut down opposing number one wide receivers. With Vince Wilfork returning from injury, the Patriots—just as they did in 03’—should finish near the top of the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game.
With the departure of Brandon Spikes, someone will have to assume the role of hard-hitting linebacker. Many are excited about Jamie Collins—and for good reason—but he’s not going to set the tone with physicality—he’ll make plays with his freakish athleticism. Instead, expect Dont’a Hightower to be the guy. With Mayo reinserted in the lineup, Hightower will be free to let his instincts take over. How he was criticized last year, I’ll never know, but don’t be surprised when he shines next year … I digress.
Contributions on Offense Came by Way of Young Players
In terms of offensive playmakers, no one would confuse the 2003 Patriots with the 2007 Patriots. In 2003, production at the wide receiver position came by way of Deion Branch and David Givens, both of which were second year wideouts at the time. During their rookie campaigns, neither contributed significantly. In year two, however, they both played a major role, combining for 1,300 yards and 9 touchdowns during the regular season. Truth be told, the Patriot offense would’ve fallen on its (metaphorical) face had Branch and Givens not taken the perennial “year two jump.”
Similar to 2003, the Patriots have multiple second year wide receivers poised to make the “year two jump” in 2014. Like Branch and Givens, the opportunity is there for Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and/or Josh Boyce to emerge. Unlike 2003, however, there will be no (metaphorical) falling on the face if the three fail to excel: with apologies to Christian Fauria and Daniel Graham, no one on the 03’ roster could hold Rob Gronkowski’s jock—add to that the return of Julian Edelman and a healthy Danny Amendola (knock on wood), and the Patriots should have no trouble exceeding the offensive output set forth by the 03’ team. *Excluded from the list is Brandon LaFell; I’m not expecting much from him.*
Like 2003, the Patriots Are Built to Slow Down Peyton Manning
After Peyton and the boys were embarrassed in Foxboro during the 2003 AFC Championship game, one thing became strikingly clear: the Patriot defense was tailored to bring out the worst in Manning—as evidenced by his 4 interceptions.
With Ty Law—the “ultimate chess piece”—locking down the Colts’ number one wide receiver, Manning was constantly forced to look elsewhere: he apparently didn’t get the memo in the AFC Championship game, as he was picked off 3 times by Law. With Darrelle Revis onboard, the Patriots once again have their “ultimate chess piece”. With Revis covering taking away Demaryious Thomas, Manning will once again be forced to look elsewhere for production. Call it the “Ty Law effect”; call it the “Darrelle Revis effect”; call it what you will, but don’t underestimate how important it is to have the “ultimate chess piece” back in the Patriot arsenal.
In 2003, Patriot defensive backs beat up on Colt wide receivers, thus upsetting Peyton’s rhythm. The Seahawks did the same thing in the Super Bowl last year. With Browner and Alfonzo Dennard, the Patriots are uniquely equipped—personnel-wise—to employ such a strategy.
That there’s a section devoted strictly to shutting down Manning serves as a testament to his greatness. But the truth is, for the first time in over a decade, the Patriots have the personnel to stifle Manning.
What’s more, they have the ability to return to defensive prominence.
In closing, I’ll echo the same sentiment I began the article with:
The defensive genius is set to make his return in 2014.