NEW ORLEANS — Talking about defense, pro football coaches say there are two NFL approaches:
--There are defensive teams that attack offensive teams.
--The others just play defense.
Characteristic of the attackers are the Raiders and Chicago Bears. The assertive Raider defense, forcing opponents to fumble, to throw interceptions and to make other errors, bailed out the Raider offense more than once this season.
The Bears on defense play with similar aggressiveness. They got to the Super Bowl that way. A reason they're here and the Raiders aren't is that when they turned the ball over to their offense this season, the Bear quarterback was more effective than the Raider quarterback.
The defensive philosophy of the Rams and New England Patriots is something else.
On defense, they function conventionally. They tend to play straight, as the coaches say.
The Patriots, confronting a ballcarrier, want to tackle him on or near the line of scrimmage. Where the Bear defense likes to gamble that it can throw the guy for a loss, the Patriots--guarding conservatively against everything the offense might do--are content to give up a yard or two.
Otherwise, when a New England opponent throws the ball, the Patriots spread out in zone defenses. They may yield a few yards on short passes, but they don't want you to hit them with a big play.
Here's the pass-defense difference:
--The Chicago coaches gamble chronically, habitually. In their 46 defense, only three Bears are in the secondary, one to play center field and two to single-cover the offensive team's wide receivers. Most of the other Bears are used to rush the passer.
--The Patriots, whose defensive tactics are similar to the Rams', usually play zone defense on passing downs with four to seven defensive backs. On a given passing play, one or two of the Patriots' defenders may be blitzing, but most are involved in the zone defense network. Their objective is to confound the passer with different kinds of zone coverage.
The Bears think they can bury the quarterback. The Patriots think they can confuse him.
A reason the Patriots are here and the Rams aren't is that the Patriot quarterback was more effective than the Ram quarterback when he finally got the ball.
The Chicago gamblers want to take possession at midfield or closer with a sack and a fumble, or a hurry and an interception.
The Bears say that they're more likely to get the ball in good field position than New England or any other zone-defense team.
By contrast, the Patriot offense must wait for the meticulous Patriot defense to stop the Bears eventually, when a third-down pass falls incomplete.
The Bear way is to tear the ball away now instead of waiting for someone to throw it away.
Accordingly, Super Bowl XX will be, among other things, an intriguing contrast in defensive styles.
The architect of the New England way is Rod Rust, who is one of the league's most widely respected defensive coordinators.
A scholarly Iowan, Rust isn't as celebrated as his Chicago counterpart, Buddy Ryan, for the same reason that men who set up roadblocks aren't as interesting as those who chase bank robbers in fast cars.
But both can be, and have been, effective.
Linebackers are often the key to any defense, as they are on both Super Bowl teams this year. Ryan's most important soldier is middle linebacker Mike Singletary. Rust's is Andre Tippett, the left outside linebacker in New England's 3-4 defense.
More exactly, perhaps, the strength of the Patriots' defense is their pair of outside linebackers, Tippett and Don Blackmon.
"We make each other look good," said Tippett. "If Don played on another team, he'd be the man."
On this team, though, Tippett is the man. He is one of the smoothest linebackers ever. Stationary one instant, he can get into high gear in two strides, diagnosing the play on the run and alternately exploding into the ballcarrier or the passer, surprising either.
Tippett, who often becomes a down lineman in the Patriots' 4-3 pass defense, stands 6-4 and weighs 241, ideal 1980s dimensions for his position. But Tippett doesn't rest his case on size alone. A stand-up defensive end on an Iowa Rose Bowl team--drafted only second by the Patriots--he used karate to build himself into a crack NFL linebacker.
And, today, Rust says: "Andre has it all. He's an athlete, he's a competitor, he's cooperative, and he can do it physically."
Unlike most teams, the Patriots have recruited eight gifted linebackers in all, including Blackmon, who is more of a hot dog than Tippett and thus a better candidate to make big mistakes as well as big plays.
In New England's secondary, it was the left cornerback, Ronnie Lippett, who eliminated the Raiders with two driving interceptions. Then right cornerback Raymond Clayborn took care of Miami and Dan Marino.
A great athlete, Clayborn makes plays backing up that some NFL starters can't make when the ball is in front of them.