FOXBORO -- One day after the Patriots dismantled Houston, Bill Belichick was asked about the role played by New England's scout team.
The typically taciturn coach opened up. He fairly gushed.
"We can watch film, we can have meetings, we can talk about stuff, we can look at diagrams and all that, but of all the things that we do, the most important thing we do is practice," Belichick said. "That's our one chance to really go out there and execute plays as close to what it's going to be like in the game as we can simulate."
"We can do a lot of the things that are important in our preparation, but practicing against the scout team comes the closest. Trying to replicate what we think we're going to get from our opponent, or looks, or personnel matchups, or techniques that they use, or whatever they use, is critical to our preparation."
Appreciate second opinions? Ask Aaron Rodgers how crucial the scout team can be. In October, the Packers quarterback lambasted the group for underperforming. Green Bay was 3-3.
"For whatever reason, the rookies have not picked up what the practice tempo looks like or how important the scout-team is as well as maybe it's been in the past," Rodgers said on a radio show appearance. "There needs to be a level of professionalism that is current through the entire team, from the veterans to the rookies, that they kind of understand how each part of the day adds to the preparation."
The job isn't done solely by rookies and third-stringers in New England. Belichick uses everybody.
Whether because of injuries or a general lack of depth at a certain position, there can be players working both sides of the ball in practice. Those players are expected to run New England's plays and then turn around and run, say, Houston's, equally well.
If Belichick feels special-team captain Matthew Slater can run a Texans route better than Brandon Lloyd, the coach will tap Slater. If he feels Chandler Jones can demonstrate a particular pass-rush technique better than Brandon Deaderick, he'll use Jones.
Every scout player needs to be coached up. He needs to be diligent and attentive.
Being sponge-like is imperative in a two-week stretch like the one New England is currently straddling: The AFC South's Texans last Monday, the NFC West's 49ers this Sunday.
The Patriots are far outside the relatively comfortable confines of their division.
"You do get a better feel for the guys we see twice a year," Slater, a veteran scout team player, admitted. "We've played against them, we know what they look like, we know what they feel like playing against them . . We've played every team in the NFL since we've last played San Francisco, in October of 2008. Obviously, there's a lot of new things, new personnel, new schemes."
It can be a manageable task. The key is to pick out basic elements of schemes that are familiar and emphasize them.
Belichick estimates that 75 to 80 percent of opponent plays are something the Patriots can relate to.
For example, the defense they're replicating might not be similar to New England's in every detail, but they do play man-to-man coverage, zone coverage, five-technique, three-technique. There are reference points.
But the 49ers present a unique challenge this weekend:
Colin Kaepernick and the "Pistol" offense.
The job of scouting quarterbacks usually falls to Patriots backup Ryan Mallett. He knew going into Week 15 that mimicking Kaepernick's mobility, of running San Francisco's triple-option plays, would be a departure.
"He's a great athlete," Mallett said of Kaepernick. "It's hard to do, but you've got to do your best and try to give them the best you can from watching the film and seeing what he does."
It starts with film.
"You have to watch them and study them; see how they move, how they see different things, how they throw the ball," said Mallett. "You've got to watch it. If you don't watch it, you're never going to learn."
Kaepernick has rushed for 351 yards this season. He's run for 50 or more yards in four different games. Only Carolina quarterback Cam Newton and Washington's Robert Griffin III have more ground gains at the position. (Note that Kaepernick has played in just 10 games this season -- starting four -- to the 13 starts each by Newton and RGIII.)
"It's similar to what we went through last year with then-Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow," Belichick said. "That's one of those where you have to sit down with the scout player and say, 'Okay, look: This is the way they do it. We don't really have this, but here's what we want you to do.' And that takes a little bit more time with maybe that player and a couple of other players who are involved.
"When you run an option you have to have a back taking the right angles, so sometimes it takes more than one player. We might sit down with the quarterback and a running back, or two running backs -- however it's structured -- and go through it with them so that they understand. What you don't want to do is go out there and run 10 plays that don't look like what they're going to run. You've got to run it to a high enough level that the Patriots defense gets an idea of what to do."
It will take some creativity to match San Francisco's unconventional formations. But in the end it comes back to coaching, to studying.
"Part of that is talking to the players and telling them and showing them how to do it," Belichick said. "Part of it is them actually watching film of our opponents so they can paint that picture for ourselves, but for our team, via the scout team."
It seems the line between 'our team' and 'their team' isn't blurred, it's obliterated.
That's why the coaches must keep their guys close to home.
Belichick ran scout teams when he was an assistant in Baltimore (when the Colts were there), Detroit, Denver and New York (with the Giants). Everywhere he worked, he saw it's as important to help Giants players improve as Giants, for Broncos players to improve as Broncos, for Patriots players to improve as Patriots, as it is to prepare the starters for their opponents.
His players see the balancing act. They respect it.
"You're practicing the same techniques that you practice offensively," Slater said of his experience. "When it comes to route running, you still attack the leverage, you still work on coming out of your breaks, you still work on catching the ball, obviously. There's definitely carryover. If you practice hard and practice the right way, there's carryover."
Mallett revels in the work. He grinned when he talked about tapping into the minds of The Other Guys. There could be something interesting to learn from Colin Kaepernick.
"I enjoy it, getting to go out there and see what different teams do. If I see something I like, I kind of put it in my memory bank. Maybe tweak it a little bit."
The Patriots radiate pride when talking about scout team work.
"It's a team sport," Mallett said simply. "We have to help each other get ready for the game every week. By us giving the starters a good look, they might be able to pick up a few things to carry over to the game, so they can recognize formations and that kind of thing.
"We take our job seriously and go out there and compete every day."
That's the attitude Belichick demands, fosters, and respects. The praise he shelled out Tuesday after the Texans game was as sincere as it was rare.
"It's one of the good things about this team: They work well together, they work hard, and they work on the little things," he said.
It took two seconds for Belichick to correct himself.
"Scouting is not a little thing, it's a big thing, but it's something that happens kind of behind the scenes during the week. You don't see it on Sunday or Monday night, but it has a lot to do with what happens on Sunday or Monday night."