Football; SUPER BOWL XXXVIII; Pats put a lot on the line; Pressure’s

Football; SUPER BOWL XXXVIII; Pats put a lot on the line; Pressure’s

Karen Guregian

HOUSTON – Warren Sapp sounded like a big-time buffoon last week when he dissed the Patriots’ offensive line and trashed Russ Hochstein, claiming his former Tampa Bay teammate was so bad he couldn’t block ESPN hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon.

Had the attention-starved, say-anything-stupid-to-make-headlines Bucs defensive lineman been keeping track, he’d know the Pats’ offensive line has been pretty darn good this season, and Hochstein has done yeoman’s work playing in place of injured veteran Damien Woody.

That said, Sunday won’t be the time for Tom Brady’s bodyguards to have an off night and give Sapp even a sliver of credence. The Carolina Panthers got to Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb and knocked him out of the NFC Championship Game with linebacker Greg Favors’ controversial hit.

If the Pats expect to tack on their second Super Bowl victory in three years, they can’t allow the Panthers to manhandle Brady like they did McNabb. In football speak, that means they have to keep him clean.

Without question, the Panthers’ front four is a formidable force. While it’s especially awesome against the run, it’s also a royal pain in the quarterback’s behind.

With Julius Peppers (seven regular-season sacks) and Mike Rucker (12 sacks) providing the surge from the outside, and Kris Jenkins (five sacks) and Brentson Buckner pushing from the inside, they’ve been known to provide tremendous pressure in the pocket.

Overall, the Panthers are ranked eighth in the NFL in total defense, and seventh in sacks per pass attempt. The above cast of defensive linemen registered 32 1/2 sacks, second most in the league behind Miami.

Brady is the one player the Pats can ill-afford to lose. He’s the one player who isn’t an interchangeable part. Chances are, the Panthers will be on a search-and-destroy mission. As Rucker remarked, “Brady is the head of that monster. He’s the guy we’ve got to stop.”

To this point, the offensive line deserves credit for keeping Brady healthy. Woody, Hochstein, Matt Light, Dan Koppen, Joe Andruzzi and Tom Ashworth have done a terrific job thwarting would-be sackers. They just need to add one more game to the list.

“Yeah, we’re going to need to do anything to keep my jersey nice and clean,” Brady said half-jokingly during media day Tuesday.

The Pats have played well against several high-caliber defensive fronts this season. The Panthers, however, may represent their greatest challenge. Peppers, Rucker, Jenkins and Buckner are extremely physical and extremely athletic.

In terms of passing, it would seem logical for offensive coordinator Charlie Weis to have Brady adopt his short-drop, quick- pass routine.

Light, however, thinks the Pats will be able to neutralize the Panthers’ front four, brawn for brawn.

“Physically, I think we can match up with them,” said Light, whose primary assignment will be Rucker. “I think you look at both sides of the ball, everyone’s going to say they pride themselves in being a tough group. I think up front, we like to think we hang our hat on toughness. I think they do the same thing. I think what it’s going to come down to in this game is who’s going to be more relentless, who’s really going to go after it. I know they’re going to bring everything they can on every play.

“And I have confidence in every one of our guys doing the same thing. We just have to do what we do. We have to go out and prove (how good we are).”

The other component would be to somehow establish the run, so Brady doesn’t have to pass every down and give the Panthers more chances to whack him. In the two playoff games, the O-line has cleared the way for 208 rushing yards. Perhaps Sapp hadn’t noticed that, or the fact Brady wasn’t sacked in either the Tennessee or Indianapolis games.

“Every offensive line wants to keep the quarterback clean. That’s one of the things we take pride in, giving up the fewest sacks,” Koppen remarked. “Without question, it’s going to be a big task for us to control those guys. It just comes down to us doing our jobs.”

Or else listen to more trash talk from Sapp.

Caption: HAMMING IT UP: Injured Patriots guard Damien Woody interviews Matt Light during Media Day on Tuesday at Reliant Stadium. Staff photo by Michael Seamans

Copyright 2004

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