Monday, August 31, 2009

Tedy Bruschi's favorite big play

There isn't one moment, Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi said, that can sum up his 13-year career. There are too many. Some came on the biggest stage in the World. Some have gone completely unnoticed.

"I slipped a guard and made a tackle or something like that," he said, "(and thought), 'Man, I thought that was a great play,' and only the coaching staff and I saw it. No one knew it, but I knew, 'That was pretty good.'"

But one play came to light on Monday in a now-it-can-be-told type of way, a play that illustrated just how perfectly Bruschi fit the Patriots' scheme during the team's run of three Super Bowl titles in four years. It was Thanksgiving Day in Detroit in 2002, and it was the second interception return for a touchdown in Bruschi's career.

"There’s almost never a play that happens exactly the way you draw it up," Belichick said. "But the interception in Detroit on Thanksgiving was exactly the way it was drawn up. It was unbelievable."

Just to set it up: The Patriots had the ball first and drove deep into Lions territory before a pair of short runs and an incomplete pass forced them to settle for a field goal. The Lions then took over at their own 23-yard line following a short kickoff return.

The first pass Joey Harrington threw was broken up by Ted Johnson. The second pass Harrington threw was intercepted and taken back for a touchdown by Bruschi -- a player who hadn't even been in pass coverage when the play began.

"That play was indicative of where I had come as a player," Bruschi said. "It was blitz and I was rushing, which is what I did in college."

Bruschi was a tremendous pass-rusher in college at Arizona, finishing his career tied with the late Derrick Thomas for most career sacks (52) in NCAA history -- a record not since surpassed.

Once Belichick -- then the Patriots' defensive coordinator under Bill Parcells -- got his hands on him, Bruschi had to learn to play linebacker and everything that went with it. He had to learn how to defend the run. He had to learn how to cover tight ends and wide receivers. He had to learn "what a hook drop was," he said. "I had never taken a drop in my life and to talk about 'Cover 2' was new to me. I didn’t even know where to go."

The learning curve made it tough for him to become a big-play defensive player right away. It was all he could do to do his job, to be in the right place, to make sure he wasn't missing tackles that would get him cut from the team. It wasn't until the middle of the 1998 season that he took over full-time at outside linebacker, and it wasn't until 1999 that he forced his first turnover.

By 2002, though, he understood the system and his responsibilities within it -- and at this moment, his well-trained instincts were telling him that this was not the right time to rush the quarterback.

"As you're rushing, I had the recognize the pass protection," he said. "If you recognize the pass protection as it's coming to you, then you drop back into pass coverage."

Had the Lions shifted their protection to the other side of the field, sending a tight end or a runing back out to pick up either Mike Vrabel or a cornerback off the edge, Bruschi would have kept right going after Harrington. But the protection had been swung toward his side of the field, and that meant he had little chance to get to the quarterback before the ball was away.

(The Associated Press recap described Bruschi as having "fooled Harrington by faking a blitz." Sometimes sportswriters get things wrong.)

Rather than allowing himself to be swallowed up and taken out of the play, Bruschi turned on his heels and searched for a blue jersey behind him. The closest one belonged to Larry Foster, a former undrafted free agent who had played his way into a role as a kick returner and part-time wide receiver.

"When you're dropping back in pass coverage," Bruschi said, "you look and read the route and see if there's a hot route that's going to be thrown because you know the blitzer is coming from the other side. Reading while you're in pass coverage -- another thing I had to learn."

Bruschi located Foster, the closest receiver and the most likely outlet for Harrington if the blitzer on the other side got too close. But seeing Foster wasn't enough. All that would do would be to put him in position to make the tackle once the pass was completed.

"You’ve got to look back," he said. "You’ve got to look back and see if the ball is coming because you think the quarterback is going to throw it because he has to because your blitzer is coming from the other side. This is all the thought process that goes on on that one play."

Harrington threw the ball short and over the middle, just like the Patriots had expected he would, and Bruschi jumped in front of it.

Twenty-seven yards later, he was in the end zone.

"You draw it up, but you don't ever think it's going to happen," Bruschi said. "Maybe parts of it. Maybe three out of four parts. But there was the ball -- and there's my moment of making the plays that change games. There it was, the final moment, my final progression as a player: Reach up. Catch it. Run for a touchdown."

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