September 14, 2005
BY: Christopher Price
Go big or go home. It's not just a marketing catch-phrase -- it's one of the core beliefs of the Panthers offense.
Few teams go deep like Carolina -- between 2002 and 2004, the Panthers were fifth-best in the NFL when it came to total pass plays of 20 yards or more, racking up 157 completed passes that were 20-plus yards, trailing only the traditional high-octane offenses of St. Louis (187), Minnesota (166), Indianapolis (165) and Kansas City (162).
Patriots' fans got a good look at Carolina's wide-open offensive attack in Super Bowl XXXVIII when Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme averaged nearly 21 yards per completion, one of the best marks an opposing quarterback has managed against the New England defense since the Patriots began their Super Bowl run in 2001. Delhomme wasn't afraid to swing for the fences against the New England defense, finishing with touchdown passes of 39 and 85 yards, the latter of which was the longest gain from scrimmage the Patriots have allowed in the Bill Belichick Era.
However, as they continue to prepare for Sunday's clash with Carolina, it's not like New England has been spending much time watching their Super Bowl XXXVIII DVD. They are able to pull a few things from that game, but their pregame research goes deeper than that.
"The game means nothing, but some of the stuff they do may be a little relevant to us," said linebacker Willie McGinest. "We take some stuff from that, we're watching preseason film, we're watching this year's film. We're watching a lot of different film. We're just not focusing on the Super Bowl. I'm pretty sure it's not going to be the same game."
That will certainly be the case for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that there are some new faces in new places. Since that game, the Panthers have lost one of their best deep threats -- wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad -- to the Bears in free agency. In addition, the Patriots have seen plenty of turnover at linebacker, losing Ted Johnson to retirement and Tedy Bruschi for the 2005 season. But the essential elements of the Carolina offense are still in place, including Delhomme, wide receiver Steve Smith and running backs Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster.
And even though Foster and Davis have battled injuries in recent years, the Panthers' ground game is still one of the most dangerous in the league. You can't just worry about Delhomme making the big play -- you also need to keep an eye out for their backfield. They are one of the only teams in the league who have four running backs -- a group that includes Davis, Foster and Nick Goings -- on the roster who have started games with at least one 100-yard effort on their roster, and they showed their versatility in their Week 1 loss to the Saints. Against New Orleans, Davis (coming off a right knee injury that limited him to just two games last season) notched 81 yards on just 13 carries, while Foster chipped in with 41 rushing yards of his own.
Because of the versatility of their backs and through schemes developed by offensive coordinator Dan Henning, they are able to present one of the most intricately designed run packages in the NFL, according to New England Head Coach Bill Belichick.
"They have a lot of different blocking combinations that are difficult to defend, and they're kind of unusual," explained Belichick, who served with Henning on the Jets' coaching staff in 1998-1999.
"A lot of times they have three guys lined up in the backfield -- not necessarily three backs. It could be two backs and a tight end. It could be three backs. It could be a back and two tight ends," Belichick added. "But, when you have those three people in the backfield, it creates a lot of different blocking angles and blocking patterns that you don't normally see."
According to Patriots' linebacker Chad Brown -- who was part of a Seahawks' defense that held the Carolina running game to just 94 rushing yards last season -- the best way to defend against the Panthers' run is to remember they actually only run a handful of different running plays. Don't get caught up in the formations -- just keep an eye on the results.
"If you can focus on the fact that it's just a couple of plays, and not get your mind all complicated with all the formations, it makes it a little easier," Brown said. "Within those formations and within those personnel changes, there are clues to what they're going to run. So you need to recognize that as well."
Christopher Price covers the Patriots for Boston Metro and BostonSportsReview.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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