Ravens defensive line coach Clarence Brooks is one of the most respected assistants in the NFL.
He is finishing up his 20th season in the league, his eighth with the Ravens. During his time with the Bears, Browns, Dolphins, and Ravens, Brooks has helped develop such standouts as Jason Taylor, Haloti Ngata, Trevor Pryce, Darryl Gardener, Tim Bowens, Adewale Ogunleye, and Trace Armstrong.
Brooks helped grow the “Desert Swarm” defense for the University of Arizona from 1990-92, where he coached a young end named Tedy Bruschi.
Brooks also happens to be one of the finest coaches produced by the Commonwealth.
He was born and raised in New Bedford, and was a standout guard and team captain at the University of Massachusetts, where he also started his coaching career.
Brooks’s son Jason, who was born while his father was coaching the Minutemen in 1978, is the offensive quality control coach for the Ravens.
“I always remember where I came from,” Brooks said. “Still have a lot of family and friends back home. It’s a special place for me.”
At Super Bowl XLVII, Brooks talked about how the Ravens defense was able to frustrate the Patriots in Baltimore’s 28-13 victory in the AFC Championship game.
“When you play them, you have to kind of pick your poison,” Brooks said. “You have to decide: Can we play against them in the run game the way we are? If we bring somebody in the box [to defend the run], they’ve got weapons down the field and they’re going to throw it.”
Because of the Patriots’ quick tempo and varying personnel packages, Brooks indicated that the key to beating them is being able to play the pass with five defensive backs, and not having to commit more players to defending the run.
The Ravens were able to play all but three plays out of their nickel package (five defensive backs).
“They limit you in the way you can get in and out of your personnel packages,” said Brooks. “Once you put a package on the field, you have to be prepared to stay there and play it through.
“They just give you a bunch of different problems that you have to kind of handle as you go on. You have to say, ‘OK, we’re going to put this package on the field and we’re going to do the best we can in the run game. Hopefully it will hold up and that will help us in the back end [against the pass].’
“And we were able to do some of that.”
Brooks also gave us his insight into the Patriots’ offensive line, what he saw on tape, and how it played in the AFC Championship game.
Left tackle Nate Solder: “I thought he really progressed as the year went along. He got a little stronger, you could see his experience level has grown a lot. He’s got a lot of ball ahead of him. Plays with some toughness. We liked a lot of the things that he did.”
Left guard Logan Mankins: “He’s just a hell of a player. He’s a bull. He’s strong, he’s a tough and nasty guy. When our guys play against him, they have the utmost respect for him because he does play his ass off. Plays through injuries. I know he’s been banged up the past couple years. When we played him in the AFC title game, he was a man. He got after our guys pretty good.”
Center Ryan Wendell: “I thought he played very, very well. In our opinion, he’s quicker than you want to give him credit for. Very smart. Can get his body on a body. Takes good angles to blocks. He was a guy going in we said, ‘We don’t know, he’s OK,’ but came out of the game very impressed with some of the things he did. Another guy that is a tough guy.”
Right guard Dan Connolly: “He’s a guy that has kind of been a jack-of-all-trades for them over the years. He’s very competitive and I think you can see that when he goes against our guys. I think our guys have a real strong feeling that as a competitor he’s one of the better ones that they go against.”
Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer: “Vollmer’s been hurt. Not sure what his injury was, but he didn’t quite look the same as he was. He has a lot of size and strength but didn’t look like he moved as well as he wanted to, or as he has in the past.”
Brooks said the overriding theme with any Patriots offensive line coached by Dante Scarnecchia is toughness.
“You know the way Dante is,” Brooks said. “Their offensive line is always very well-coached, very well put together. They have a bunch of tough guys up there and they do a nice job.
“Dante loves finding tough guys, and he makes them even tougher. If you’re not prepared for that playing for him, you won’t last long.
“I always hear it from my guys after playing the Patriots: ‘Man, those guys are tougher on the field than you might think. They never stop.’ It’s always a battle.”
BLOCKING THEM OUT
Ravens had hands full but pulled it off well
The Ravens’ performance on the offensive line against the Patriots was a big key in their victory. In the 2011 AFC Championship game, Vince Wilfork had perhaps the best game of his career and made several key plays down the stretch. The Ravens were able to handle Wilfork much better this season.
“We did well enough [against Wilfork] to win,” said Ravens offensive line coach Andy Moeller. “I will say this: Vince is a great player. Blocking him is a little different than blocking everybody else. If you can keep Vince on the line of scrimmage, keep him from disengaging and making a tackle, that’s a ‘win’ block. There aren’t a lot of times you’re going to knock him off the ball just because he’s a special player.
“I think [center] Matt [Birk] was a little bit healthier this year. We didn’t run the ball with great success early in the game, and I don’t know if it’s just about blocking Vince. But we also had an opportunity there in the second half to throw the ball, and we’re good at throwing the ball and had a chance to protect. I think that third quarter was big.”
Moeller said he was impressed by Patriots ends Chandler Jones (who was injured) and Rob Ninkovich.
Jones, said Moeller, “is going to be a really good player. I think whenever you don’t have your best guys, your starting guys, that obviously makes a difference. We had a lot of respect for him. He’s going to be a good player.
“Ninkovich is tough, hard-nosed, always around the ball. Good football player.”
Moeller also confirmed what has been evident on tape: As a group, the Patriots defensive line is one of the league’s best at disengaging from blocks. That’s a huge key to controlling the game.
“They’re terrific at it,” Moeller said. “They are tough to move because they’re all big guys in there. Whether they’re playing their 3-4 alignment or 4-3 — and you have to get ready for both in there — they present you problems inside.”
McCourty and others factor into Reed issue
So this past week, we heard plenty about Ravens safety Ed Reed.
Does he desire to play for the Patriots? No. He would like to stay with the Ravens, which may be difficult.
Baltimore is in a tough situation with the salary cap. It is basically right up against it, and that’s before you deal with a new contract for quarterback Joe Flacco.
Bill Belichick, who adores Reed, will be keeping tabs on him. However, the Colts may have the inside track. Coach Chuck Pagano recruited and coached Reed at the University Miami before coaching him with the Ravens from 2008-11.
An interesting part of this: Reed is his own agent. So any coach or general manager will have to call Reed themselves to court him.
But do the Patriots need Reed, who will be 35 next season and has had injury problems? The answer has to do with whether they see Devin McCourty as a safety or cornerback. Because the secondary has evolved into one big jigsaw puzzle.
McCourty quickly developed into a good free safety; imagine what he could do with an entire offseason and training camp.
If the Patriots want McCourty to play safety, it’s hard to see a need for Reed. They would have two free safeties, and neither is a consistent 16-game hitter. They would need to find a good, enforcer-type strong strong safety in free agency or the draft. That’s not Reed.
Of course, that doesn’t even start to address the fact that the Patriots have just two other cornerbacks — Alfonzo Dennard and Ras-I Dowling (plus special teamer Malcolm Williams) — under contract for 2013. How successful the Patriots are at re-signing Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington is another factor.
If Talib and Arrington leave and that forces McCourty back to cornerback, then maybe Reed comes into the picture more. Then again, Steve Gregory is signed for two more seasons and is a free safety.
Why should Welker settle for a discount?
Nobody has more respect for Robert Kraft than I do. And as a businessman and deal-maker, he’s like E.F. Hutton: Everybody, rightfully, listens. But he should tread very carefully when he’s talking about contract negotiations for a player like Wes Welker, and how agents could “mess it up” if they’re not “intelligent.” Translation: Take a hometown discount. If Kraft sold one of his businesses, how many times would he take less than market value? Imagine if Kraft had only one business that lasted about 12 years (as Welker does with his body playing in the NFL); would he take a hometown discount in the final opportunity to sell? Of course not. The appropriate statement would be: “We want Wes. He wants to be here. Hopefully we can work something out, but if not, this is a business and those things happen.” Welker is one of a lot of moving pieces for the Patriots this offseason. There has to be a raging debate internally about how to make the passing offense more explosive in the biggest games. Welker is certainly the safe, known quantity and it’s comforting to have that, especially if you’re Tom Brady. But do they go for broke, let Welker walk, and find a dynamic “X” deep threat, move Aaron Hernandez to Welker’s spot inside next to Rob Gronkowski and sign two or three “Z” Julian Edelman-type receivers for the price of one Welker? An interesting dilemma.
Nickel package (Super Bowl edition)
1. This is one of the most unpredictable Super Bowls in recent memory, because you have a 49ers offense that is still malleable in that even Colin Kaepernick’s own coaches are still discovering different ways to use him — let alone how defensive coordinators view him.
2. With the Ravens, you know what you’re going to get on both sides of the ball, so they’re easier to game-plan for. But their talented roster makes them anything but easy to beat.
3. One X factor is how Kaepernick will respond when one of the Ravens drills him. That should happen at some point. He’s a 6-foot-4-inch ostrich running down the field, and somebody like Bernard Pollard is going to lay him out — 15-yard penalty be damned — to set the tone.
4. It will be interesting to see if the Ravens learned anything from how the Patriots came back against the 49ers. Baltimore should spread them out with three receivers, tight end Dennis Pitta, and one back, and go no-huddle. It negates the strength of the 49ers: their linebackers and pass rush.
5. At the end of the day, though, I think the best coach in the game, Jim Harbaugh, with the best staff and roster, will throw enough wrinkles into the game plan to win, possibly an easy victory. My pick: 49ers 32, Ravens 24.
Former Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum was on Radio Row all week, perhaps looking to repair his image a little bit and possibly get into the media. Tannenbaum seemed to do a decent job as he took a lot of responsibility for what went wrong with the Jets. Thought one of the most interesting comments he made was that he had no plans to trade cornerback Darrelle Revis, which the Jets reportedly are now considering . . . The Steelers hired Jack Bicknell Jr. as offensive line coach. Bicknell, the son of the former Boston College coach and a former center for the Eagles, was the Chiefs line coach in 2012. Before that, he was an assistant line coach with the Giants from 2009-11. Bicknell replaces Sean Kugler, who resigned to become head coach at UTEP, his alma mater. “I believe the offensive line is the foundation for the football team,” Bicknell told Steelers.com. “They’ve got to have good character, they’ve got to be tough because it’s a tough man’s game and I believe that starts up front.” . . . Wise decision by Packers receiver Donald Driver to retire after 14 years and 220 games with the franchise. “It was time,” said Driver, who turned 38 Saturday. “I still think I can play, but it’s time for Daddy to go home to the kids and my wife. I also thought I owed it to Packers fans not to wear another jersey. It’s not something that I ever wanted to do.” Driver finished tops on the Packers’ all-time list in receptions (743), receiving yards (10,137), and 1,000-yard seasons (seven). His 205 regular-season games for the Packers trail only Brett Favre (255) . . . Giants owner John Mara said former UMass receiver Victor Cruz was asking for too much money at this stage in negotiations, which is understandable since in every negotiation both parties ask for the moon. The Giants have a lot of leverage, with Cruz being a restricted free agent. The team undoubtedly will put a first-round tender on him, which would give the Giants the right to match any offer or receive a first-round pick in return . . . Former Rams running back Marshall Faulk really needs to get over the Super Bowl loss to the Patriots. His crying, which he did again last week to Comcast’s Tom E. Curran, is just so tired and disrespectful. Faulk’s team lost to a tougher, more physical Patriots squad that just executed tremendously. Faulk should blame his coach, Mike Martz, for his game plan and failure to adjust.
Greg A. Bedard can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.