PHOTO: New England Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest chases the action during the AFC championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday, Jan. 23, 2005 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
Insiders Report: Patriots News and Notes
The Patriots' defense has stopped the Colts' exciting passing attack and the Steelers' imposing rushing attack. But when New England lines up at ALLTEL Stadium this Sunday for Super Bowl XXXIX, it will face a different type challenge.
The Patriots will have to contend with a multitalented offense centered around versatile personnel. Sure, Terrell Owens might be the best receiver in football and will draw the attention of the Patriots secondary, but New England's top priority has to be to contain quarterback Donovan McNabb and running back Brian Westbrook, who offer multiple threats.
McNabb only ran the ball 41 times during the regular season as he tried to stay in the pocket more, but that doesn't change the fact that New England must be able to deal with McNabb's running ability, especially in critical situations and in the red area. Among McNabb's 41 runs were three touchdowns and a 28-yarder, the type that break a defense's back.
So it will be important for New England to keep McNabb in the pocket and make him do his damage in a confined area with pressure around him. That will involve the edge rushers coming under control and maintaining containment responsibilities rather than coming hard up the field. The Patriots may have to rush five to accomplish that.
"I think you want to keep him in the pocket," outside linebacker Rosevelt Colvin said. "He presents a second dimension with his feet. He has options. It has to be team defense."
McNabb was the first quarterback to ever throw more than 30 touchdown passes while tossing fewer than 10 interceptions in a season, so it's not as if his mobility is his most dangerous weapon, but his ability to make plays outside the pocket and buy time can usually mean trouble for a defense that has to adjust to the receivers and try to stick with them for extended periods.
"Donovan makes plays in the pocket and huge plays outside the pocket," linebacker Mike Vrabel said. "He buys time for his receivers and they uncover and he makes big plays down the field."
"He is the focal point of the offense in my opinion," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "He makes all the throws. They run a lot of short passes, three-step drops, they run a lot of play action and moving pocket passes like bootlegs and rollouts and that kind of thing. They have a lot of vertical routes. The offense has a lot of different elements and he's a threat to run and buy time to throw. He uses all of his receivers, backs and tight ends. You have to defend him on all fronts."
So the Patriots will try to make McNabb uncomfortable as he delivers the football, but because of the weapons available to him, it will be difficult to commit an extra rusher on a regular basis before he eventually burns the defense and the lighter coverage.
Westbrook might be the most active of those weapons even while T.O. is the big-play threat. Westbrook presents a problem with his versatility as an elusive runner and receiver. He has been compared to Marshall Faulk this week, and Eagles coach Any Reid admitted he went back and watched the tape of Super Bowl XXXVI to see how New England defended Faulk. Defending the versatile Westbrook and all the different threats that McNabb presents from the backfield can be difficult.
"Both of those guys present significant challenges," Belichick said. "I think you have to pick your spots and take care of your responsibilities."
"Westbrook is so elusive, it's hard to get a good hit on him or jam him when he doesn't have the ball," linebacker Roman Phifer said. "He causes problems and it will certainly take more than one guy to look after him."
The Eagles are also 12-1 this season when Westbrook gets 10 or more touches in a game.
So while the Patriots stopped Peyton Manning and limited the Colts to just three points and stopped Jerome Bettis while pulling away from the Steelers, they now face the most versatile, even if not the most productive, offense they have faced in the postseason.
Preparation and knowledge of Philly's tendencies will be a big part of how New England slows down the Eagles offense this week because the Patriots will be picking their spots on when to blitz and how to cover in certain situations, which should make this the ultimate game of cat and mouse. While the Eagles defense is one of the league's most formidable and is laden with Pro Bowlers, the Patriots' ability to contain McNabb and Westbrook will likely be the determining factor in the outcome of Super Bowl XXXIX.
SERIES HISTORY: 10th meeting. The Eagles lead series 6-3 and had a five-game winning streak snapped in Week 2 of 2003 when the Patriots beat Philly 31-10 at Lincoln Financial Field. The series dates back to 1973. The teams met in the preseason in each of the last three years so have a basic knowledge of each other.
Forget what happened in Week 2 of 2003. It's irrelevant. Donovan McNabb was playing with an injured thumb that hampered him over the first six weeks of the season. Philly was 3-3 before McNabb found a groove he has never left. He has been awesome since the seventh game of last year. But that day back on Sept. 14 in Philly, McNabb looked lost against the Patriots defense.
He was sacked eight times and completed only 18-of-46 passes for 186 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions. The Patriots won 31-10 behind an offensive game plan that called for spreading out a thin Philly secondary that was without injured starters Brian Dawkins and Bobby Taylor. Brady completed 30-of-44 passes in that game for 255 yards and three touchdowns, two to tight end Christian Fauria.
McNabb is healthy this time. Terrell Owens is in the mix. The Eagles' secondary is healthy. Jevon Kearse is rushing off the edge. Jeremiah Trotter is back in the middle of the defense to thwart the run.
While it's fun to go back and look at the last time the teams met to draw comparisons and examine matchups, that game couldn't have less relevance in this Super Bowl rematch. The teams are quite different today than they were on Sept. 14, 2003. And it's safe to assume that New England will employ a completely different plan for the Eagles this time around.
Defensively, Philly will give the Patriots' offense some problems with its talent in the secondary combined with the pressure it brings on opposing quarterbacks. It will likely try to use that pressure to force Tom Brady into critical mistakes, the kind he has never made in a big game of this type.
But the Eagles allowed just 14.8 per game before the final two weeks of the regular season when they rested most of their starters. They then held the explosive Vikings to 14 points and the Falcons to 10 in the playoffs. Opponents converted just 35.8 percent of third downs against them and they forced 28 turnovers while finished seventh in the NFL in red zone defense, allowing touchdowns only 47.8 percent of trips inside their 20.
"They're at the top of the league in all the important defensive categories," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "Points, third downs, red area ... they're difficult to score against and that's the name of the game.
"It starts on the defensive line. They're string up the middle - (Sam) Rayburn, (Hollis) Thomas, (Darwin) Walker, (Corey) Simon, (Jeremiah) Trotter - they're tough to run on inside and they have a lot of speed on the perimeter with (Dhani) Jones, (Mark) Simoneau, (Hugh) Douglas, (Jevon) Kearse, (Jerome) McDougle and (Derrick) Burgess. They're very good in the secondary. Top to bottom, they have very good defensive personnel and have depth on the line where they play all eight players. Jimmy Johnson is one of the best defensive coordinators I've seen. Their pressure package puts a lot of stress on communication and your blocking assignments."
With Belichick garnering so much attention for his impeccable postseason coaching record, the credit for the Patriots' success seems to go to the head coach, leaving the players feeling a bit under-appreciated, mostly as a result of their team-first approach.
"We put that perception out there ourselves," linebacker Willie McGinest said. "Everything we do, we do together. Of course there are individual accomplishments and accolades, but the important thing about the guys in this locker room is that they put all those personal things aside to better the team."
"We're never going to have 12 guys in the Pro Bowl," linebacker Mike Vrabel added. "It's just not going to happen. Tedy Bruschi finally made a Pro Bowl. It's so long overdue that it takes a wrist injury on Ray Lewis for him to get in. If that's what it takes, so be it. But he deserved to be in. Rodney Harrison shouldn't even be a debate."
BY THE NUMBERS: 7 -- the number of players and coaches that will participate in their fourth Super Bowl with the Patriots. Assistant head coach Dante Scarnecchia is the only member of the staff to participate in all five of the franchise's Super Bowl appearances.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We have Pro Bowlers. Should we have more? Maybe. But who cares? To us, the only bowl that matters is the Super Bowl. A lot of players would give up Pro Bowls to play in and win the Super Bowl. That's all that matters to us." -- Willie McGinest.
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