Patriots: Weekend Notes, Gameplan and More

The Game this weekend between the Carolina Panthers and the New England Patriots provides a good look at what many experts thought to be the two best teams in the league. With debate raging about the merits of the the Patriots decision to play the 3-4 or the 4-3, only one thing can be certain -- the Panthers will see both on Sunday. Get inside for the weekend notes and gameplan.

Patriots: Weekend Notes
By Staff

There is no definitive word on whether the Pats will play a 3-4 or 4-3 front this week, which means it's unclear whether Jarvis Green starts at defensive end or Chad Brown starts at inside linebacker.

If it's a 4-3. Green plays end with Richard Seymour sliding inside on the guard with Vince Wilfork beside him and Ty Warren on the other end. Monty Beisel, Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel will be the linebackers, although Bill Belichick still uses the outside linebackers on the line of scrimmage similar to how they play in a 3-4 front.

So that 4-3 is not a true 4-3, but rather a hybrid defense with players playing responsibilities rather than true positions.

In the 3-4, Seymour and Warren play the ends with Wilfork on the nose. Vrabel, McGinest and Beisel remain with Brown joining Beisel inside. Expect safety Rodney Harrison to be used in the box this week when Carolina is in a two-back set with one or two wide receivers in the game.

GAME PLAN: The Patriots will try to attack the Panthers secondary with its array of weapons rather than simply line up and try to run into a tough run defense that is without its best player, Kris Jenkins, for the remainder of the season. The Panthers typically play a seven-man front with a double high safety look in the secondary that they hope makes them difficult to throw against. But the Patriots will attack every area of the field with a versatile passing attack and look to occupy at least one of those safeties inside with tight ends Benjamin Watson or Daniel Graham. The Patriots deep wide receiving group should match up well with the Panthers secondary. That is, of course, assuming New England can keep the likes of Julius Peppers out of the backfield. If Peppers forces New England to keep a tight end in pass protection, Carolina could have a distinct edge because it will use its two deep safeties to take away the Patriots downfield attack. That two-high safety look allows the Panthers corners to play aggressively at the line and also play solid in run force. With Peppers and Mike Rucker setting the edge in run defense, the Patriots will look to attack the inside cutback lanes and quickly get Corey Dillon running north-south.

Defensively, the Patriots will treat Steve Smith the way they did Randy Moss last week, which is with over-the-top help on the outside while making Keary Colbert and Ricky Proehl beat them. But the Pats attack will begin with stopping a formidable running game. Bill Belichick won't tip his hand and declare whether he will be in a 4-3 or a 3-4 but after last week's effort in the 4-3, we say he sticks with it and uses Jarvis Green over Chad Brown in the starting lineup. The Patriots played much better out of that front last week and will likely stick with it while mixing in some 3-4 looks in an effort to confuse the pass protection by making it difficult to identify the rushers. Look for Rodney Harrison to cheat forward and help in run support, although Jake Delhomme has proven he can throw his team to victory if necessary. New England will try not to let him do that to his big-play man - Smith.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Patriots Ts Tom Ashworth and Nick Kaczur, who rotated at right tackle in Week 1, vs. Panthers DE Julius Peppers, who has 30 sacks in three seasons and was elected as a starter in last year's Pro Bowl. He did not have a sack rushing against Ashworth in Super Bowl XXXVIII, but did have five tackles and five QB pressures. He's the type of player Belichick says can "ruin a game." The Patriots edge pass blockers must make sure he doesn't do that.

Patriots CB Randall Gay, a former undrafted free agent who started most of last season and will likely be a fill-in starter again this week, vs. Panthers WR Steve Smith, who led his team with eight catches for 138 yards and a touchdown in Week 1. Smith missed almost all of last season after breaking his leg and returns as Jake Delhomme's go-to guy. He was looking forward to facing Tyrone Poole, whom he claims spit on him in Super Bowl XXXVIII, but Poole might not play due to injury. Gay will need safety help from Eugene Wilson, and will have his hands full with the small, but fast and physical wideout.

Patriots interior defensive players Monty Beisel, Vince Wilfork and Richard Seymour, who will anchor a 4-3 front if the Patriots go that route, vs. Panthers C Jeff Mitchell and Gs Mike Wahle and Tutan Reyes. Carolina wants to pound the ball with Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster, who combined for 122 rushing yards in a losing effort last week. Davis is returning from knee surgery, but looked strong last week. Carolina's running game is paramount to the success of its play action passing attack. The Patriots have to stuff Davis and Foster early while trying to jump out on top to take the crowd out of the game. Seymour and Beisel finished 1-2 in tackles for New England last week with 8 and 7, respectively, but New England was shaky against the run. Carolina will test New England's front from the outset.

INJURY IMPACT: The Patriots will feel their injuries on special teams and in the secondary. With Tully Banta-Cain likely out, the Pats will continue to turn to starters like Mike Vrabel to fill in on teams when needed. Banta-Cain is a core special teams guy like fellow linebackers Matt Chatham, Don Davis, Larry Izzo and Wes Mallard. If Johnson doesn't play again this week, Ellis Hobbs and Kevin Faulk will remain the kickoff returners. Johnson's return would send Faulk to the bench on the kickoff return team. IN the secondary, the loss of Poole and Chad Scott leaves the Patriots thinner at corner, meaning they will count on Duane Starks to return from his injury and jump right into the fray. He is unlikely to start with Randall Gay filling Poole's role opposite Asante Samuel. It will force New England to use an inexperienced defender like Guss Scott or Hobbs in dime packages. The loss of two corners and a safety also means extra duty for defensive backs playing regular defensive roles in the game to also serve as the gunners and vice guys on the punt teams. If Jarvis Green and Richard Seymour both miss the game or are limited, the Patriots ability to stop the run will be compromised. Expect Marquise Hill to be active this week for the second time in his career.

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