Patriots defense hard to defend

ESPN analyst Mark Schlereth talks about the difficulties of defending the Patriots defense.

Updated: January 28, 2004, 5:36 PM ET
By Mark Schlereth | Special to ESPN.com

When the Carolina Panthers face the New England Patriots on Super Bowl Sunday, they'll be facing one of the best and most confusing defenses in the NFL. For the Panthers to be successful, they don't need QB Jake Delhomme to throw the ball 28 times for 300 yards to win. Instead they need him to be efficient, while they stay committed to the running game and keep protecting him when he does have to throw. That will be extremely difficult against this team.

Jake Delhomme
AP/Mark HumphreyIf the line doesn't do a good job, Delhomme won't be smiling after the game.
The Patriots defense shifts personnel very efficiently and will play three or four different defensive fronts, which changes the way opposing teams call their protection schemes. For example, if a team is running weak side protection then the blocking scheme is different for 3-4 and 4-3 formations.

Normally when a team switches from a 3-4 to a 4-3, it's obvious because a different player comes in for the defense. That allows the offensive line to adjust and pick the correct blocking assignment. That's what makes the Pats so effective… they don't have to switch personnel so opposing lines have no idea what is being run against them.

This team has a ton of interchangeable parts, players like Willie McGinest can play defensive end or outside linebacker. Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel can play inside linebacker, rush defensive end, outside linebacker and Richard Seymour can play inside defensive tackle or defensive end. The only guy that can't play more than one position is Ted Washington and that's because he's 6-foot-5, at least 365 pounds and is pretty much standing around killing grass.

Because of that versatility there are typically one or two sacks and five or six hits that can be blamed just on confusion. It's not like they come in and open a can of whupass and beat you, they open up a can of confusing whupass and beat you.

Because the Patriots create so much confusion, it's vitally important for Delhomme to be protected for him to have a good game. It all comes down to whether they can keep the free blitzer from hitting him. The Patriots are so good defensively that they force teams to be one-dimensional by taking away the run. Part of their success is due to running a two-gap technique. Also, they aren't afraid to occasionally commit safety Rodney Harrison to the line of scrimmage. But they're so good at two gapping teams that oftentimes, they can get away without bringing safeties down to stop the run.

Adding to the confusion is when they run the 3-4, one side of the offensive line will think they're blocking a 3-4 and the other will think they're blocking a 4-3. That's one of the worst things that can happen for a line because if a line makes a mistake together it's not that bad because they can go back to the sidelines and readjust and at least they're all on the same page.

But if you have two or three guys trying to block one way and the others trying something different then a defender is going to come through the line untouched and that's going to be trouble for Delhomme and the Panthers.

For the Panthers to be successful against this defense, they need the offensive line to recognize and define what schemes the defense is in and the entire line has to be on the same page.

Former All-Pro guard Mark Schlereth joined ESPN in 2002 as an analyst for NFL 2Night, now NFL Live. He brings 12 years of NFL playing experience to the role. Schlereth has also filled in on numerous ESPN radio shows.

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