Teams will try to exploit weaknesses
The Panthers think they can run on the Patriots, while New England will try to force Jake Delhomme into mistakes.
HOUSTON -- Bill Belichick spends his game-week days trying to find the weaknesses of opponents. When it comes to passing offenses, nobody breaks down opponents better than Belichick. But while Belichick will certainly find some weaknesses to exploit, Panthers coach John Fox is hard at work finding ways to attack New England.
The problem facing the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII is that the Panthers don't do much exotic. It doesn't require a scientist to figure out the Panthers. They run. Offensively, they are about as complicated as a bullfight. Their bulls -- Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster -- are going to try to run over you.
"I think I heard of one of their guys say the key to winning this championship is running the ball on our defense," Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said. "That's what they are going to come out and try to do; they are going to try to run the ball. They might try to spread us out a little bit to soften us up, but ultimately if Jake Delhomme has to pass the ball 30 or 40 times, he's not going to beat us that way."
Harrison took offense to thoughts that the Colts exposed some holes in the Patriots' run defense in the AFC championship game. Edgerrin James rushed for 78 yards on 19 attempts. The Patriots won, 24-14.
"You've got to understand we were in two-deep zone," Harrison said. "That was our goal -- not to let them beat us passing the ball. We didn't worry about him running the ball. And he still didn't get 100 yards against us running the ball. Right now they are very confident. You know, even some of their players in my opinion are on the edge of being kinda cocky. We gave up one 100-yard game all season. If you watch the film, you'll see teams didn't tackle well against them. We're pretty good tacklers. We're not going to be hitting them and having them bounce off. When we hit them, they are going down. It will be interesting to see what happens if we hit them in the mouth."
Every team has weaknesses. Internally, the Panthers believe they can beat the Patriots' 3-4 run defense. Harrison was brought in from free agency to stuff the run as the eighth player in the tackle box. He ended up replacing Lawyer Milloy at strong safety. Nose tackle Ted Washington was acquired from the Chicago Bears to be the run-stopper in the middle of the field.
The Panthers believe they can win the war at the line of scrimmage by double-teaming Washington, whose range isn't more than two or three steps to his right or left. Left end Bobby Hamilton weighs less than 280 pounds, giving up more than 20 pounds to right tackle Jordan Gross.
The Panthers believe they can win the blocking war against the Patriots' three-man line because they have assembled one of the league's most underrated offensive lines. Left tackle Todd Steussie compares it to the line the Vikings had when they went 15-1. He was surprised center Jeff Mitchell and Gross didn't get more Pro Bowl votes. Steussie had one of his best seasons in years.
The Patriots' linebacking corps of Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi, Roman Phifer and Mike Vrabel has some age. Even though they play well together and might be one of the smartest units in the league, the Panthers believe they can win the physical war against them.
Still, it's hard to believe run defense is a weakness of the Patriots. They allowed only 89.6 yards a game. The longest run against them was 23 yards. They have a group of excellent tacklers. Still, the Panthers believe their strength can win against the Patriots.
Perhaps the scariest weakness of the Patriots is at punter, which could prove disastrous if this is a game of field position. Ken Walter had a 33.6 net average per punt (fifth worst in the AFC) and a 37.7 gross punting average (second shortest in the conference). Todd Sauerbrun is one of the league's strongest punters, having a 44.6 average and a 35.6 net.
That could be huge if the early part of the game turns into a bunch of three-and-out possessions. That benefits the Panthers significantly, particularly if it can give them short drives to set up field goals.
Another Patriots weakness is along the offensive line. Guard Damien Woody is the Patriots' most talented blocker, but he's out with a knee injury. Russ Hochstein, who has only two career starts, replaces him at left guard. He plays next to rookie center Dan Koppen, who is 296 pounds. They have to contain one of the strengths of the Panthers defense -- tackles Kris Jenkins and Brenston Buckner.
It's not out of the question for the Panthers to blitz safety Mike Minter into the left guard hole to create confusion for Hochstein and create confusion for the interior of the Patriots' offensive line.
Going into the season, the Panthers' biggest weakness was their secondary. Coach John Fox successfully covered for the inadequacies at cornerback with the league's most talented defensive line. Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker were masterful pass rushers. Jenkins and Buckner were overpowering in the middle.
Their aggression bought time for the secondary to mature. Deon Grant finally learned how to become a more physical safety, following the lead of Minter, who is one of the best. Reggie Howard may not be much of a playmaker at safety, but he is a good tackler and can knock down some passes.
Rookie Ricky Manning Jr. came on at the end of the season to become a budding star. He's an aggressive man-to-man coverage asset who intercepted three passes against the Eagles. Expect Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to take advantage of that aggressiveness by sending receivers at him and try to beat him with double moves to get behind him.
"They're just going to have to bring it," Manning Jr. said. "If that's how they feel, good. As long as they come my way, I'm happy. I'm up for the challenge. It's a grand opportunity for me. I want Tom Brady to throw at me. I love the pressure. I want it to come my way. I'd be a coward if I didn't want it to come my way a lot. It gives me the opportunity to make more plays. I might get beat -- maybe or maybe not."
Though Manning came on to give the Panthers three adequate coverage cornerbacks, Belichick will probably spread the field with four or five wide receivers to see how much depth the Panthers have. That puts Dante Wesley in the position of either being a weakness or a strength.
Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme could end up being a weakness if the Patriots have the lead. The Patriots have scored touchdowns on the opening possessions of the past five games. He's in his first Super Bowl. Though he's cool in the pocket in the fourth quarter, he showed some signs of being uncomfortable during the NFC championship game. He'll also throw off his back foot on occasion.
The Patriots will load the line of scrimmage with defenders to force him into throws.
The Patriots believe the Panthers are a little below average at outside linebacker. Neither Greg Favors nor Will Witherspoon are big playmakers along the outside. The defense misses Mark Fields, who was out for the season because of cancer. Fields added a speed and athleticism that is sorely missing in the front seven.
On the flip side, the Patriots' inability to be a great running team could prove to be a weakness if they have the second-half lead. If the Patriots come out as expected in a four-receiver set, Kevin Faulk will be the featured back. He averages 3.6 yards a carry. Antowain Smith is their power back and does better in playoff games, but he's only a 3.5 yard per carry run.
It's hard for the Patriots to move the chains on the ground.
The team that does the best job in maximizing the weaknesses of their opponents should end up the victor in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
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