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The Patriots are deeply indebted to there offensive front
THERE'S AN axiom about football at the highest level: Courage takes you only so far, then it's a matter of talent.
So there's really no logical reason why that gang of ragamuffins on the Patriots' offensive line stuck it to the Carolina Panthers' defensive front, the most talented quartet in the business. Only two of New England's linemen were starters when the season began, right guard Joe Andruzzi and left tackle Matt Light. The others—center Dan Koppen, a fifth-round draft choice, and right tackle Tom Ash-worth and left guard Russ Hochstein, street free agents—were patched in as injuries hit the unit.
Yet this group kept Tom Brady free from sacks, cleared the way for 127 rushing yards and helped the Patriots pile up 278 second-half yards on one of the NFL's proudest defenses and score on their last two possessions.
"Smart, tough, strong, dependable," said Scott Pioli, the vice president for player personnel, who brought in all five linemen. "You won't find any of them at the Pro Bowl. But they're world champions."
The number I concern of the Patriots' line was the old Bears look, when three defensive linemen squeeze inside and cover the middle three blockers. The Patriots called it the "diamond look," and the Panthers like to run slants and stunts out of it.
"At first we kept a tight end [ Daniel Graham] in to help with the blocking," Koppen said. "Not exactly maximum protection but more people than we usually keep in. Then as we got into the flow of the game, we'd release more guys into their patterns."
Graham got the start over Christian Fauria because of his proficiency as a wham blocker, a tight end motioning behind the line and turning up and whamming a defensive lineman on a running play. Even if the play didn't result in much yardage, it sowed a seed of hesitancy and blunted the enemy rush. When it became obvious that the Panthers' front four couldn't generate enough pressure on Brady, Carolina started blitzing—out of desperation.
"We were waiting for their three-strong blitz on my side, but they didn't use that much," Graham said. "Instead they blitzed the weak side, and that meant [running back] Kevin Faulk had to stay in and block."
Little used in the playoffs, Faulk, at 5'8", 202, had been primarily a receiver, but he stuck his nose in there and picked up the blitzes. That left the Panthers vulnerable downfield, and Brady took advantage of that, getting six of the Patriots eight third-down conversions via a pass.