Panthers, A Tough Challenge For Patriots

In most rematches the event doesn't always live up to the hype surrounding it. Boxing matches are notorious for this. This week the NFL has a number of "must see" games on the schedule -- games you can't afford to miss. The battle between the Patriots and the Carolina Panthers is sure to be well worth the price for admission as New England faces one of the toughest teams in the league this Sunday. It's a game deserving of the hype.

PHOTO: Carolina Panthers' Julius Peppers (90) reaches out to sack New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) during the first quarter in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2004. (AP Photo/Rick Havner)

Panthers, A Tough Challenge For Patriots
By Dave Fletcher

When it comes to playing a physical football game, no one knows how to lay out an opponent quite like Rodney Harrison. It takes a hard-nosed player to know one, so it isn’t just lip service when the Patriots safety talks about how tough the Carolina Panthers are as a football team.

“The (Super Bowl against the Panthers) was the most physical game I’ve ever played in,” said Harrison. “They are a tough group. We know they are tough, physical and well coached. It’s going to be good, exciting game on Sunday.”

Coming from arguably the most physical player on the most physical team in the NFL, those aren’t trite words from Harrison, who walked off the field with his arm in a sling after Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston. “I’ve never broken a bone in my body in a game before (that Super Bowl).”

The Patriots (1-0) will need to meet brawn with brawn again on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium when they face Carolina (0-1) for the first time in the regular season since defeating them, 32-29, for their second championship in February 2004. Like their Super Bowl matchup, this figures to be a game that will be won by the team who wins the battle in the trenches.

Carolina, the savvy preseason pick by many experts to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl this season, needs a win against New England to avoid dropping its first two home games to begin the year.

On offense, the Panthers are similar to the Patriots in their philosophy of wearing down the defense with a bruising running game. Stephen Davis and Deshaun Foster figure to each carry the ball 10-15 times. Unlike Oakland, which mostly ran its offense with a single running back in the backfield, Carolina’s tandem will create more matchup problems for linebackers Monty Beisel and Chad Brown.

“They have a lot of different blocking combinations that are difficult to defend and they’re kind of unusual,” said Belichick. “A lot of times they have three guys lined up in the backfield -- not necessarily three backs. It could be two backs and a tight end.”

The Patriots will need to win the battle up front to help free the linebackers to make tackles. Belichick has stated that he’ll let opposing offenses dictate whether he uses a 4-3 or 3-4 defensive alignment. This week’s injury report lists both Richard Seymour (thigh) and Jarvis Green (thigh) as questionable, though Seymour and Green were seen participating in practice on Thursday. If one or both of those defensive ends don’t play, Belichick may not have the flexibility he had against Oakland to substitute in a fourth man on the line.

Belichick cautioned earlier this week about defensive linemen becoming too aggressive when trying to contain rushing plays.

“Whether it is Ty (Warren) or Richard or Vince (Wilfork) or Jarvis or Marquise (Hill) … it really comes back down to being able to beat the guy who is trying to block you and if you can’t do that, then you can get to the ball all you want, but I don’t think you’re going to be making too many plays,” said Belichick. “I hear a lot of buzzwords going around on defense about, ‘I want to get to the ball. It's important to get off blocks and fly to the ball,’ and all of that. I don't really see it that way.”

The Panthers’ running backs are too smart at reading their blocks to be pinned down by overly aggressive linemen. It will be up to the linebackers and Harrison to contain the rush. If they don’t tackle soundly and the defensive line bites on too many play-fakes, Jake Delhomme is good enough to burn New England’s secondary. Anyone in need of a reminder can watch the fourth quarter Super Bowl XXXVIII highlights.

He may not be the most exciting quarterback in the NFL to watch, or even in the top ten, but listening to Belichick praise Delhomme sounds eerily similar to the way coaches describe Tom Brady.

“He’s a good decision maker,” said Belichick. “They throw the ball down the field on a good, consistent basis if you let them. And if you don't, then they move the chains by just kind of taking what the defense gives them.”

Taking away No. 1 target Steve Smith will likely fall on the shoulders of Asante Samuel, who is beginning to establish himself as one of the league’s top cornerbacks. The secondary should also get a boost with the return of Duane Starks.

Tom Brady and the New England’s offense will also face a formidable challenge this week, thanks mostly to a defensive line anchored by one of the league’s best, Julius Peppers.

“He bodyslammed me last year in the preseason,” said Brady. “It was like I was 150 pounds. He's strong, he runs well and he's very athletic. He plays draws well, he plays screens well, he rushes up the field and he powers the tackle.”

New England will need another stellar effort from its offensive line similar to the clinic put on in the Super Bowl against the Panthers, when Peppers and Co. couldn’t manage any sacks on Brady. While Belichick praised Tom Ashworth for the job he did blocking Peppers in the title game, he knows the defensive end will find a way to be disruptive just based on his sheer athleticism.

“I imagine he could probably move inside and play defensive tackle,” said Belichick. “There's no question he could play tight end. He probably could play offensive tackle. He's 290-something pounds. You're talking about a guy that could probably play six or seven positions on the field.”

The Patriots catch a break with Kris Jenkins going down for the season with a torn ACL that he suffered in last week’s loss. Corey Dillon ought to benefit most from Jenkins’ absence. After managing only seven rushing yards in the first half against Oakland, Dillon got back on track in the second half and will need to be his normal bruising self in Carolina.

Running the ball well early holds more importance this week because the Panthers like to confuse offenses by disguising their defensive sets.

“They've got the whole spectrum defensively,” Belichick said. “They play zone. They play man-to-man. They played some combinations. They blitz man. They blitz zone. They give you some of the 46 look and they have a couple of the three-man rush things where they have eight guys in coverage, so they have, what we call max blitz or max coverage, where they bring everybody or they drop everybody.”

Dillon can keep the Panthers honest by pounding the ball between the tackles and getting the offense into third-and-short situations.

With both teams countering aggressive defenses with power running games, fans can expect a dogfight in Carolina. Both teams will need to earn every yard they get and more than a few players will limp away with their fair share of aches and bruises. The trenches will be treacherous and the hits will be hard. The physicality the Panthers exhibited against the Patriots in the Super Bowl is something New England shouldn’t forget. Surely, Rodney Harrison won’t.

What To Watch For: The turnover differential. The Patriots rely on forcing more mistakes than they make, something that is especially important this week against a tough team on the road. The Panthers lost to an inferior Saints team last week because they lost two fumbles and Delhomme threw two picks. The last time New England lost, Brady threw an uncharacteristic four interceptions in Miami, a surefire way to lose a road game. Carolina led the NFC with a plus-12 turnover ratio last year.

Notes: Fourteen out of the 22 players who started for the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII are expected to play on Sunday (Compared to 13 for the Panthers) … The Patriots are 6-2 in Week 2 games since 1997 … Tyrone Poole is the only current Patriot who has also played for the Panthers … Brady surpassed the 300-yard passing mark for just the ninth time in his career against Oakland … Brady passed for 354 yards and three touchdowns against Carolina in the Super Bowl … Dillon averaged just 2.7 yards per carry against the Raiders … Belichick didn’t rule out needing Troy Brown’s services as a defensive back in the future. “I don't know what's going to happen. But, he's done it in the past and if we needed him to do it again, and we called on him, I'm sure he would do it.”

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