Our Ron Lippock spoke with Matt Chatham, former Patriots linebacker and current host of the REAL THING Patriots Podcast.
First, tell me a bit about your memories of the Steelers-Patriots rivalry. Did you consider it a rivalry then?
Well when I played, I think we did consider it one. But Bill Belichick liked to talk about all 16 opponents in the same way to garner respect from us for all of the teams. But by virtual of the style of play and the respect we had for the Steelers organization and legacy, he stressed more o their physical style and focused on them more. But he had to tiptoe that line – so he usually just emphasized the physical nature of the game. They had guys like Kreider with that seven-foot neck, and that monstrous offensive line and, of course, Jerome Bettis.
Being a special-teams ace, how do you remember that being emphasized – especially as the Patriots seemed to make so many big special teams plays in those games?
The team really invested in special teams. Instead of that one special teams guy most teams carry, they invested more in special teams. Most teams just used their draft picks on special teams, but they don’t always make good special teams guys. New England went out and got good special teams guys instead. A lot of guys look at their fourth wide receiver as more important than a good special teams guy even though they may only have played 25 snaps a game. We put as much or more value in a good special teams player even if they only played 10-to-20 snaps a game. Those were still big roles for us and New England invested in them. Guys like Pass, Izzo, Aikens – New England decided to allocate money to players like that as much as other guys,
Any examples of some ways you strategized around weaknesses you saw on the Steelers special teams units?
One example, not to call out a guy – but James Harrison was a big linebacker – one of the best in the NFL for a while. But his body type – it just wasn’t great for running up and down the field for 80 yards. Sometimes we could use things like that to help on special teams.
We had a lot of former Steelers play for us – Kurpeikis, Josh Miller – or “Big Stick” as we called him because he can mash the ball on the golf course. We always had big guys on our special teams that could run, too. We had our own clique on the team. Guys know who the good special teams guys are in the league.
Any fun stories that stand out to you?
One I’ll remember fondly – in a perverse way – was one I’m glad happened even though it’s odd to say,
It was when Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala just blew me up on a punt. I got a good release on the line – I beat the guy off the line and was running down getting ready to tackle Antwan Randel El. Just as I was about to tackle him I was wiped out from my left side. It probably would be an illegal hit today but it was a perfectly legal hit and I just got blasted. I zig-zagged back as I walked to the sideline.
Heinz Field went crazy – and of course the replay operator got it and showed it three time on the big screen for the crowd!
That play would probably be illegal now and that’s a shame. It was my fault – I needed to have more awareness – to have my head on a swivel more. If I looked left I may have avoided the hit by Ma’afala. Now they’d put that hit on the what not to do video for the NFL. But I deserved it. That’s what football should be about.
From your perspective – what were the biggest differences between the Patriots and Steelers then?
I’ll say this – I think the Steelers were mentally tough, like the Patriots were. But there is nobody tougher than the Patriots mentally. I say this as affectionately as I can – it wasn’t a party every day in New England. We had a good time, don’t get me wrong. We had our side cultures and kidded around. But it was all business. That helped us in dealing with adversity. We took things play to play, not week to week. We were emotionally strong. He put us through a lot in meetings and in film study. Ran us through tough situational football in practices. Seeing that 28-3 comeback in the Super Bowl shows that – that’s how that happens. Good is a collection of talent. But you need toughness when things go wrong. That’s how you become winners.
I’ve seen other teams that weren’t mentally strong. I’ve seen teams that didn’t have that kind of strength and it’s noticeable.
What do you think about this New England team and it’s offseason?
I love the depth at linebacker – it’s loaded – the whole defense is loaded. It’s really strong. It’s six-to-seven guys deep.
In fairness today so many teams run the nickel and play more defensive backs. The linebacker position gets chipped a bit, But the Patriots invested in linebackers – behind the starters you have guys like Calhoun and Winovich. Beverly is a stud from Purdue too. We can have two starting fours there. We talked a lot about depth when I played and how good we were then on defense. Everyone talks about this Patriots offense, but this defense held the Rams to three points in the Super Bowl. And I think it will be better this year than last year.
And it seems like Bill Belichick is ahead o the trends again – going more power football even as teams go pass-heavy, taking advantage of smaller defenses. Do you see that as well?
That’s a great point. They love Devlin at fullback – at a time when most teams don’t even carry a fullback on their 45. That cuts into their tight ends but it give them the chance to play those power offenses. Most linebackers are just used to playing against the spread in college now- they aren’t used to having t shed blockers and make plays. So I do think playing that power running style of football is a big part of what they want to do now.
It also doesn’t hurt to have a 40-plus yer-old quarterback under center who’s as fit as a thirty-two yer old. It’s not like they do it the whole game. But to have it in their bag to run 20 or more times a game is big. They can do both – pass and run – very well.