Pats use five linebackers to corral McNabb

Originally Published: February 7, 2005
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Maybe the outcome of Super Bowl XXXIX wouldn't have been any different with only one week between the conference title games and Sunday night's NFL championship contest.

But provide New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel the customary two weeks to prepare for an opponent, an entire fortnight to retire to their film-room laboratory and conjure up a maddening array of X's to counter their opponent's offensive O's, and you know they will emerge with something special.

As was precisely the case in Sunday's 24-21 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, a win that validated the Patriots as the first dynasty franchise of the salary cap era.

Most of the football world, including the Philadelphia coaching staff, spent much of the past two weeks trying to figure out how the Patriots would deploy their four linebackers, always the focal point of a Belichick game plan. Instead, Belichick and Crennel spent the time scheming up a way to use five linebackers, and, not surprisingly, the two defensive gurus came up with a workable plan.

Even before departing Foxboro for Jacksonville, during their brainstorming sessions that the luxury of the bye week provided them, the Pats' staff decided it would expand the use of the "Cali-front," a scheme typically used on third down. But rather than just break out the front in nickel situations, New England opted to align in it for nearly the entire contest on Sunday night.

And while Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb threw for 357 yards against a Patriots secondary that was further weakened when starting free safety Eugene Wilson was lost to a broken arm in the second quarter, the odd front was confounding enough to force McNabb into three interceptions and four sacks.

"I think it confused them early on, gave us a mental and physical advantage, and really forced them to make some changes," said Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest. "It was a great idea. For us, the key was getting McNabb uncomfortable in the pocket, chasing him around the field. Yeah, he had some moments, but I think we were pretty effective in getting done what we set out to do."

Essentially, the Pats took McGinest and another outside linebacker, most often Rosevelt Colvin but also Mike Vrabel on occasion, and aligned them as ends. Some observers left ALLTEL Stadium on Sunday night referring to the gambit as a 2-5-4 scheme, but actually it was a 4-3 front, with linebackers playing end. Most of the time, New England had just two pure defensive linemen on the field, rotating the tackles with solid results.

Richard Seymour, who had missed the final regular-season game and both the previous two playoff victories with a partially torn ligament in his left knee, played more snaps than the Pats' coaches suggested he would. He was joined, at various times, by Jarvis Green, Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork and Keith Traylor, as New England attempted to keep fresh bodies on the defensive interior.

But the play of the New England linebackers, as usual, made the gimmick defense work so well.

Basically, the ploy permitted the Patriots to get more of their best athletes on the field. For more than half the Pats' 72 defensive snaps, unofficially, New England was able to have McGinest, Colvin, Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi and either Ted Johnson or Roman Phifer in the lineup.

We just felt like we had to pressure McNabb. You watch them on tape, and there are times he just sits back there in the pocket, patting the football, and waiting for a receiver to come open. We weren't going to let that happen. We wanted our best rush people on the field, and we got that with the defense we used.
Bill Belichick

New England is noted, of course, for preparing a dizzying array of defensive schemes, and using the entire bag of tricks, altering its looks throughout the game. But Sunday night, while the Pats tossed a few twists at McNabb and blitzed more than usual, the rare 4-3 look was their calling card and they stayed with it.

"We just felt like we had to pressure McNabb," Belichick said. "You watch them on tape, and there are times he just sits back there in the pocket, patting the football, and waiting for a receiver to come open. We weren't going to let that happen. We wanted our best rush people on the field, and we got that with the defense we used."

Despite having only one tackle, Colvin was outstanding. Although the team's highest-profile unrestricted free agent acquisition has contributed only modestly in two seasons after suffering a career-threatening hip injury last year, he was in the Eagles' backfield much of the night and, unofficially, posted three quarterback pressures.

In all, the New England linebackers totaled 21 tackles and two sacks, and they were ably aided by strong safety Rodney Harrison in particular.

The veteran safety finished with seven tackles, one sack, two interceptions, and a pair of passes defensed. In the second half, playing without Wilson and with two rookies (corner Randall Gay and backup free safety Dexter Reid) and one second-year veteran (corner Asante Samuel) in the secondary, Harrison had even more responsibility than usual on his shoulders. As was the case last year, the Pats' opponent in the Super Bowl rang up a ton of yards, but New England prevailed in part because of Harrison's performance.

The New England secondary suffered a major meltdown on a late touchdown pass from McNabb to wideout Greg Lewis, which cut a 10-point lead to a skinny, three-point margin and caused a few nervous moments. Why the Pats were in man-to-man coverage on the play, with Reid having no help over the top, was disturbing. But it became moot when the scoreboard clock registered all zeroes.

In their consecutive Super Bowl victories, the Patriots surrendered 680 passing yards and six touchdown passes to Jake Delhomme of Carolina and McNabb, but Harrison just kept making timely plays. It was his second theft of the evening on Sunday, with nine seconds remaining, that secured another Super Bowl win.

Fittingly, it was outside pressure from Colvin and McGinest, with each closing on McNabb as he desperately sought to make a play, that precipitated the final turnover.

"We had a lot of adversity," Harrison acknowledged. "When [Wilson] went down, I'll admit, we were confused for a while. We were running around too much. But I thought our front people played great all night. When you go in with a good [game] plan, well, good things happen for you. And tonight was another example of the genius of our defensive coaches."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.

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