The inventor of modern moving defenses was mid-20th-century coach Clark Shaughnessy, who also invented modern offense. For those two achievements, he clearly belongs in the Hall of Fame, but isn't, and that's another story. This week's story is that Shaughnessy's defense was taken to a new high by Belichick, who wielded it to beat the best passer of his time.
The embarrassing thing to the Colts is that injuries had removed Belichick's best defensive player, Richard Seymour, as well as his two starting cornerbacks, and Belichick still won. Against Manning's team, what could be worse than losing both starting cornerbacks? Why let Belichick jump around to disguise the obvious truth that he wants you to run? Embarrassing.
Big Ben is Still the Best
THE QUARTERBACK who has it toughest this month is Roethlisberger, who is being asked to line up Pittsburgh's old-time offense, the most out-of-date offense in the league, and use it to win playoff games. Still, when he so narrowly beat the New York Jets in overtime Saturday, 20-17, it was instantly assumed, and announced, that Big Ben "finally played like a rookie."
That's a libel on Roethlisberger, who under the circumstances played another great game, his 14th straight in an undefeated NFL career. Whereas the Jets could only score touchdowns on long returns (a punt run and an interception return), Roethlisberger beat them this way:
In the tensions of a fourth quarter when Pittsburgh was clearly losing (17-10), he coolly directed the only sustained long touchdown drive of the game to tie the score. He opened that 66-yard drive with a 20-yard scramble and ended it with a four-yard shovel pass. In between he successfully did what any quarterback employed by any conservative, old-fashioned team must do, he completed third-down passes.
In overtime, Roethlisberger outdid his remarkable fourth-quarter performance. After his defense got him the ball on the Pittsburgh 15, he moved the Steeler offense 72 yards to the winning field goal, passing successfully on third and six and third and five, then passing carefully in the red zone.
For an NFL rookie in his first playoff game, it was a magical, all but unbelievable afternoon, for which, unbelievably, he was castigated afterward for completing only 17 of 30 passes and for throwing two interceptions — for, in other words, being "a rookie who finally played like a rookie." Not much could be further from the truth.
If Roethlisberger fails to win his 15th in a row this week, it won't be because he's a rookie playing like a rookie but because his coaches have failed to structure an offense that matches the brilliance of their defense. Asking a rookie like Roethlisberger — or a veteran like Manning — to complete third-down passes against Belichick is like asking a rock star to sing opera.
Can Unorthodox Falcons Win a Big Game?
THE ATLANTA FALCONS, who destroyed the Rams Saturday, 47-l7, could win again in Philadelphia this week with their field leader, wild-man runner Michael Vick , who is an unprecedented kind of quarterback and the most unpredictable athlete in the league. The Falcons are a team whose good running game is set up not by passer Vick (which is an acceptable NFL way) but by scrambler Vick. If that isn't sufficient this time, the reason will be obvious: Vick isn't enough passer to last any longer in the playoffs.
There is only one challenge to the Eagles this week — defensing Vick wisely, properly — and the Eagle leader with that assignment is Jim Johnson. An upper-echelon defensive coach, Johnson, who's kept most of Philadelphia's opponents at bay throughout the century, has helped Coach Andy Reid reach four consecutive NFC championship games.
The Rams, meantime, are out of the playoffs because their defensive team and their special teams have all deteriorated alarmingly during the five-year tenure of Coach Mike Martz, whose expertise seems to be limited to play design — a specialty in which he has perhaps never had a peer.
The Minnesota Vikings are out of the playoffs because, at Philadelphia Sunday, their coaches cost them all chance with a needlessly complex game plan that made a needlessly tentative threat out of a great passing-running quarterback, Daunte Culpepper.