I guess we have to put the signature defensive moment from last year’s Super Bowl away for good now, to follow the rules of the Patriot Way and store it up on a shelf alongside another Lombardi Trophy, close enough to be remembered fondly yet far enough that its shadow won’t encroach upon this year’s football journey.
But with a few more days to go before the official defense of the title begins Sunday night against the Steelers, there is still time to relive the most exhilarating highlight of a near-perfect defensive night.
So close your eyes and see Jason McCourty streaking down the field toward the end zone, his supercharged speed and heads-up awareness creating a last-second intersection with wide-open Rams receiver Brandin Cooks. Remember how McCourty, the man who’d never sniffed the playoffs in nine previous years in the NFL, had come to New England to join his twin brother Devin and chase the championship dream. Recall how he hurtled his 31-year-old body across the field that Sunday evening in Atlanta, an all-out, maximum-effort push on a pivotal third-quarter play that showed just how much this new opportunity meant.
Relish how he prevented a certain touchdown, preserved a 3-0 lead (it would become a 3-3 tie when the Rams’ drive stalled and ended in a field goal), and propped up the offense long enough for the one fourth-quarter TD the Patriots would need in an eventual 13-3 victory.
Remember it all as part of a stunning defensive performance by the Patriots against a team that had wowed the NFL with its offensive prowess, how once again, Bill Belichick had gone into his lab and outcoached yet another upstart phenom by going back to his old-school, hard-nosed defensive roots.
And then, as you turn your gaze toward the season that starts Sunday, take that moment, and that game, as a sign that this defense could be even better this year.
With depth and versatility and with Belichick ready to call the shots while the young coordinator-less staff below him gets acclimated, the Patriots’ 2019 defense has all the makings of dominance.
We may not know who is actually calling the plays on game day (though signs point to linebackers coach Jerod Mayo), but as secondary/safeties coach Steve Belichick said Tuesday, the experience is the thing. And nowhere is there more experience than in the secondary, run by the head coach’s son, from the McCourtys to Patrick Chung, Stephon Gilmore, Duron Harmon, and Jonathan Jones.
“Those guys have played a ton of football together, they’ve taken a lot of snaps, built a lot of camaraderie over the years,” Steve Belichick said. “I can’t speak enough good things on those guys and all the work that they put in in the meeting rooms and walk-throughs to be fluid on the field.
“It’s kind of like the quarterback on offense. The safeties — they’ve got 21 guys in front of them, so there’s a lot of directing traffic and multiples that they have to deal with on a play-to-play basis, especially a team like Pittsburgh that presents a ton of different challenges.
“They’ve got a lot of presnap and postsnap communication to make sure everybody’s on the same page. A lot of potential variables that could happen in front of them and there’s no coaches out on the field, so it’s their job to sort it out.”
That Steve Belichick got the first crack in Tuesday’s conference-call rotation probably doesn’t mean much, but his ongoing maturation as a coach in his own right is certainly interesting, given his pedigree. At 32, he is a peer of many of the athletes he coaches. That he also attended Rutgers like the McCourtys and Harmon means he has friendships that predate coaching relationships, yet he seems to have done a good job navigating the road from teammate to coach, benefiting as much from their wisdom as they can from his.
As coaching ranks across the league continue to fill up with family ties (the wunderkind Sean McVay comes from a coaching family, as did the Shanahans or Moras over the years), Steve is content to quietly find his way.
“I’m not too worried about all that stuff,” he said. “I’m just trying to have fun and win some football games.
“I love football. I’ve been around it my whole life. I enjoy any responsibility I’m given. Each day is a new day, each year is a new year, so I’m just trying to work on my craft and be the best coach I can be, regardless of what my name is.”
Such goes life around the defending champs, relatively free of the drama elsewhere in the NFL. No acrimonious splits with top offensive stars like the Steelers had with LeVeon Bell and Antonio Brown. No shocking retirements like the Colts had with Andrew Luck (only a monster tight end who’s moved on to hawking CBD oil but who could still make a late-season return). No last-minute wheeling and dealing like the Texans did to make a Super Bowl push or the Dolphins did to make a push for the top pick in the draft.
Just football around here, where one look at last year’s finish is the best glimpse of this year’s potential.
That play was epic. Who can forget Bill Belichick standing at his late-night podium, a stunned, “Oh, my God,” his first and best public reaction to what Jason McCourty had done, and all the later breakdowns of the play that revealed how much the Patriots had adjusted from their season-long man-coverage defenses to stymie the Rams with multiple zones.
They may have lost Trey Flowers up front to free agency, but with Michael Bennett and Jamie Collins signed on in his place, with Dont’a Hightower, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Kyle Van Noy, and Lawrence Guy all back, experience is the thing.