Smith, Branch could have big impact
Deion Branch and L.J. Smith are two players who could have a big impact on Super Bowl XXXIX.
Searching for Super Bowl "X-factors?"
Try the guy now playing the "Y" for Philadelphia, or a New England wide receiver capable of producing big plays from the "X," "Y," and "Z" positions.
Whether or not T.O. plays is irrelevant for Smith. He needs to play well and provide Donovan McNabb with another reliable target in the passing game. The Patriots are going to do to Freddie Mitchell and Todd Pinkston what they do to every receiver they face -- they're going to Olivia Newton John on them and get physical at the line of scrimmage. New England's defense also is going to do everything it can to limit Brian Westbrook's production, just as it did with the Rams' Marshall Faulk in Super Bowl XXXVI. Westbrook can expect to be hit and held every time he comes out of the backfield and to see a corner when he's split wide.
So Smith has to step up, especially with the Eagles' starting tight end down.
Smith had been the Eagles' backup behind Chad Lewis. Philly likes to run a lot of plays out of a two tight ends/two receivers/one back package, with Smith subbing for the fullback as the "U." The Eagles call it their "Tiger" personnel group. But it's a lot less dangerous with Lewis out with a foot injury, Smith now playing the "Y," or traditional tight end position, and the recently-signed Jeff Thomason taking over the "U."
Eagles coach Andy Reid said, "It won't affect us. We'll still be able to do the same things we were doing." Not quite, according to someone with intimate knowledge of the Eagles' offense.
Philly sees Smith (6-foot-3, 258 pounds) one on one against a linebacker as a favorable matchup, he's such a good receiver (34 catches, five touchdowns in the regular season). Lewis (two touchdowns in the NFC title game) is a decent threat in the passing game himself, and having both him and Smith on the field at the same time helped Reid create mismatches. With Thomason and without Lewis, it figures to be more difficult to get Smith on a linebacker. Before, defenses had a tough adjustment to make whenever the Eagles would motion Smith to Lewis' side, or vice versa. Not anymore.
It's also easier now to accurately predict to which side the Eagles will run when they're in "Tiger" -- toward Thomason. Smith is not known for his blocking and isn't the all-around tight end Lewis is. A secondary coach whose team faced Philly this year said his defense treated Smith as a receiver at all times and made all its strong calls away from him, figuring the Eagles wouldn't run much, if at all, to Smith's side of the line.
Smith's biggest challenge next Sunday may be simply getting off the line. Just two weeks ago, Patriots linebackers Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel completely neutralized the Colts' tight end tandem of Dallas Clark and Marcus Pollard, jamming them enough to disrupt the offense's timing. There's a lot of timing involved in the West Coast offense, so Super Sunday would not be a good time for Smith to play like a reserve.
How productive McNabb is passing also will depend on how well Philly's offensive line blocks New England's 3-4. The Eagles, like most NFC teams, don't see much of the 3-4 front. Perhaps it was purely coincidental, but both times Philadelphia faced the 3-4 this year (Pittsburgh, Baltimore) the offense didn't look so hot. "Hot" reads and check downs are especially key for McNabb against the Patriots because his line will get caught in the wrong protection from time to time. What happens is, you slide your protection toward one outside linebacker but he ends up dropping into coverage, leaving the backside 'backer one on one.
On the other side, Branch should see plenty of single coverage against the Eagles' all-star secondary, which features three Pro Bowlers. Philadelphia has a couple of dilemmas. Do the Eagles blitz or bring a safety down to help in run support and leave the corners in man-to-man, or sit back and risk being gashed by Corey Dillon? One thing we know about Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson is that he isn't the passive type.
Branch may not be the prototypical receiver (5-9, 193), but he is the Patriots' most polished and most explosive wideout. He torched the Steelers in the AFC title game for 116 yards on four catches. He can play any receiver spot -- "X" (split end), "Z" (flanker), or "Y" (slot/inside) -- and has become Tom Brady's favorite receiver. The Patriots think he could be a 100-catch receiver in an offense that did not distribute its passes as much. Branch is competitive, tough, and sharp in and out of his breaks. He's strong for his size and he comes up big in big games, evident by the 10-catch Super Bowl he had last year.
How many catches Branch and Smith can come up with for their respective teams Feb. 6 could help determine whether a dynasty is established or a new champion is crowned.
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.