Panthers are in rush to cope with Brady

Pressure on Patriots QB is Carolina's best weapon against empty backfield

Super Bowl

Panthers -- Patriots

January 27, 2004|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

HOUSTON -- The answer is as subtle as a blind-side sack.

The question is how to disrupt the New England Patriots' spread-the-field offense in the quick-draw hands of quarterback Tom Brady.

The Carolina Panthers believe they know how, but aren't sure whether they can accomplish the deed.

"That is the hard part about this thing," Carolina defensive end Mike Rucker said yesterday. "We know what to do, but the hard part is doing it. He will spread you out, bring people in, but he gets the ball out so fast and that is the hard part about him."

It is the latest in a string of playoff challenges for the Carolina defense. Until now, the Panthers have answered each one. They blitzed the Dallas Cowboys into chaos. They made St. Louis Rams coach Mike Martz timid. They cornered -- and ultimately beat up -- Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb.

In the Super Bowl, they will take on one of the NFL's quickest releases since Dan Marino. Operating without the benefit of a dependable running game, Brady has the Patriots on a 14-game winning streak.

"I think we have different challenges all the time," Rucker said. "Last time the challenge was a mobile quarterback [McNabb]. This is a different challenge, defending the spread, defending the one-back [formation].

"It's in our job description. It's what we've got to do. It's what we'll do."

The pass rush is coming, the pass rush is coming.

When Brady brings the Patriots out in an empty backfield and spreads his receivers on Sunday at Reliant Stadium, the Panthers feel they must make him pay for it -- and chase him to a less-threatening formation. They will have to do it with pressure on the pocket and hits on the quarterback.

"When you talk about that spread offense, it's quick," said Mike Minter, Carolina's strong safety. "When you talk about dumping the ball off 3 and 4 yards at a time, you really don't get set up as a defense. You have to go quickly. That causes a lot of problems.

"The one thing that you have to do is hit Tom Brady to get him out of that. You have to get him back to that conventional stuff. Then you will be OK. That is the key right there. Get to Tom Brady. The teams that did get to Tom Brady, they [the Patriots] got out of it quick."

Because the spread will put great stress on the perimeter of the Carolina defense, the Panthers hope to get pressure on Brady with their front four. Blitzes will leave them vulnerable to the big play.

Fortunately for the Panthers, they have the personnel to pressure with four. Led by Rucker's 12 sacks, the defensive line accounted for 32 1/2 of the team's 40 sacks in the regular season. In three playoff games, they added six more.

It's no wonder this is regarded as the NFL's top front four.

Warren Sapp, the voice of last season's best defensive line with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, already has called the matchup of Carolina's defensive line against New England's offensive line a mismatch -- in the Panthers' favor. And the Patriots' line hasn't allowed a sack in two postseason games.

"I think they have a good offensive line, a line that works well together," said Panthers middle linebacker Dan Morgan. "We obviously have a great defensive line and guys that can really get after it.

"I hope he [Sapp] is right. I hope Super Bowl Sunday comes around and that will happen. I fully expect that to happen."

Kris Jenkins and Brentson Buckner can collapse a pocket up the middle better than any defensive tackle tandem in the league. That's where the Patriots have had the most upheaval in an injury-wracked line.

Opposite from Rucker is defensive end Julius Peppers, who was the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2002.

It's a line that incorporates a little of everything -- speed, power, finesse -- in getting to the quarterback.

"If they're spread, it means they have no blockers back there," Rucker said. "They try to get the ball out fast. We just have to get our hands up. ... If there's nobody back there [to protect Brady], we know it won't be a running play."

Minter goes one step further. Hitting the receivers can be another form of intimidation. The Panthers slugged the Eagles enough that their receivers finally stopped catching McNabb's throws in the NFC championship game.

"When they [the Patriots] catch the ball, the safeties have to be there to hit them," Minter said. "We have to let them know that when you do catch it, it will be a long day. That right there, the physical part of the game, will get you second-guessing about coming across the middle again."

Therein lies yet another good matchup -- the physical nature of both defenses.

"You guys have seen us play the Cowboys, the Rams and Philadelphia," Minter said. "You know what our secondary can do. You see how physical we can be. It is going to be a hard-hitting game. It is going to be fun to see the two secondaries match up and see who comes out with the hardest hits."

Game data

Matchup: New England Patriots (16-2) vs. Carolina Panthers (14-5)

Site: Reliant Stadium, Houston

When: Sunday, 6:25 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9

Line: Patriots by 7

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