Where Eagles didn't dare
Philadelphia abandoned the blitz, will New England?Posted: Tuesday January 29, 2002 3:14 PM
Sports Illustrated's Peter King will file daily reports from Super Bowl XXXVI. Check back tomorrow through Sunday afternoon to, as King once said, "find out about the good, the bad, the ugly and the latte during Super Bowl week."
NEW ORLEANS -- One of the big non- Brady questions of the week, and I mean very big, is how often the Patriots will send blitzes at Kurt Warner in an effort to throw him off his game. " Bill Belichick does so many things that are totally different from what you expect," Rams head coach Mike Martz tells me.
It's almost useless to try to project. Not that I'd be any good at it anyway. I was positive -- downright positive -- after spending time during the week with Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, cornerback Troy Vincent and defensive end Hugh Douglas that Philadelphia would send several kitchen sinks at Warner. They'd blitzed him with five or six rushers -- instead of the customary four -- on 23 of the 46 times Warner dropped back to pass in the season opener. And on the Friday night before the NFC Championship Game, Vincent told me Johnson had installed more blitzes in that gameplan than in any other since he'd been with the Eagles. That didn't mean he was going to use all of them. But when I spoke to Vincent on Friday night, he got up from the table where we sat and began to deliver a rendition of what he felt would be Johnson's pregame speech. "All right men!" he said in a loud and raspy voice. "We're gonna get after this guy Warner! We're gonna knock him around! And if what we're calling doesn't work, we'll call something else! We won't leave anything in the bag!"
On Sunday, I charted the Eagles' pass rush. They blitzed on eight of Warner's 35 pass drops. (He threw 33 passes, scrambled out of the pocket for a short gain on another and was sacked once.) What in the world is happening? "You got snowjobbed," Paul Zimmerman said to me midway through the second half as Philadelphia continued to, ineffectively, mostly send four men after Warner and pressure him very little. And so after the game, I made a beeline for Johnson, catching him as he walked off the field after having congratulated some of the Rams. "What happened?" I asked. He told me that because the Eagles were so ineffective against the run and because Marshall Faulk ran the ball 31 times for 159 yards, Philadelphia couldn't risk sending extra rushers and leaving free lanes for Faulk should he get past the line of scrimmage.
Plausible. Martz agreed and said if he were deciding how many rushers to send while a back was having that great a day, he wouldn't have blitzed much either.
Good explanation, I suppose. But there's no question Johnson's going to have some explaining to do with his defense based on the look I saw on Douglas' face when I asked him about it after the game. "I can't answer that question," he told me. "All week we were going after the quarterback and we stayed back. I guess they did a good job in keeping us off balance."
A few minutes later, Douglas asked Vincent in the locker room bathroom why Johnson didn't call more blitzes. Vincent said he was clueless. When Vincent emerged from the bathroom, he seemed calm but upset at the defensive calls that sent extra rushers at the quarterback on just 23 percent of the pass drops.
"He [Johnson] nutted up," Vincent said.
"'Nutted?'" I said. "You mean got nervous about blitzing?"
Vincent nodded. "He promised he wouldn't call the dogs off, and he called the dogs off. When you send four rushers with six or seven blocking, you can't get the penetration to knock Kurt off his game. He can stand back there and wait until one of his guys finds an opening."
Interesting. Warner had a nice day -- 22 of 33, one touchdown, no picks -- but he didn't mortally wound the Eagles. Faulk did. And I'm fascinated to see what lesson Belichick learns from Johnson's fateful decision.
Meal of the day
My nicest meal of the week -- there is no question about it -- came Monday night, four hours after landing in New Orleans. NOLA is an Emeril Lagasse spot in the French Quarter, and I went with Sports Illustrated's own Don Banks and FOX Sports football brain John Czarnecki. Great meal, even if we ate it at 10:35 p.m. (11:35 on this cowboy's body clock). Ripped off some of Banks' pork gumbo, which was incredible, and had the shrimp appetizer (don't recall the name) and the pork chop with sweet potato. Sublime. Well worth it. We split a banana cream pie for dessert. As of 10 a.m. today, I haven't eaten a bite yet. Can't.
Media note of the day
Wastin' away in Securityville. Entering the Convention Center, where the media does its business, you get wanded, you get frisked, you have to empty your pockets of everything, and you must show your I.D. at three checkpoints.
Foggy, 71, overcast. The forecast is for clouds all week. San Diego is the site for this game next year, and I guarantee you I won't be writing those words 51 weeks from now.
Five Things I Think I Think
1. I think no one knows who Tampa Bay will hire.
2. I think that if you were looking for any clues as to who will start at quarterback for the Patriots on Sunday, you could not divine them Tuesday morning at New England's media session. Tom Brady had his injured ankle in a splint, and walked with a slight limp, but insisted he was fine. We'll see Wednesday at 2 p.m. for practice.
3. I think I can't believe how many people in this town smoke cigarettes.
4. I think there has seldom been a better feel-good story at this game than Aeneas Williams, born here, bred here, employed here (in the Superdome at Saints games). The whole city wants him to win.
5. I think Belichick proved himself a surprisingly good raconteur Tuesday morning at the media session with his stories about accompanying his father, a U.S. Naval Academy assistant football coach, on scouting trips. There might be a feature story in this guy, after all.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Peter King covers the NFL and appears
regularly on CNN/Sports Illustrated and CNN's NFL Preview.