HOUSTON – It wasn't quite Joe Namath guaranteeing victory, but Rodney Harrison made no bones about how he feels his team will handle the Panthers potent running game.
"We're going to do what we've done – stop the run," Harrison said on Thursday. "We've allowed one 100-yard rusher (Denver's Clinton Portis) and it's not going to change."
Harrison didn't say the Patriots will win the game, but he clearly stated that neither Stephen Davis nor DeShaun Foster would be raking up triple digits on the ground. And preventing that from happening will be one of the keys to Sunday's game. The Panthers are truly committed to the run and were one of just three teams in the league who passed less often than they ran.
Carolina is able to stay conservative with its approach because of its consistency. The Panthers, with both Davis and Foster carrying the load at various times, failed to rush for 100 yards as a team just five times all year. Three of those also happened to result in Panthers defeats.
Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel believes that commitment by Carolina to stick with the run is one of the scariest things about preparing for the game.
"Some teams say they are a running team, but they're not committed," Crennel said. "Carolina definitely is and they will run the ball. They have a good running back, a good, strong offensive line and that allows them to run the ball. So that's where we have to start."
That's also where the Patriots began the 2003 season – making a renewed effort to stop the run. The 2002 version barely made teams break a sweat in piling up big numbers. Opponents found a soft underbelly inside and also had success bouncing things to the outside when they failed to meet much resistance.
Throw in some shoddy tackling and positioning at times in the secondary and the Patriots defense needed almost a complete changing of the guard, and philosophy, heading into the season.
"Basically we did some self-scouting to see why we had such problems in the running game," Crennel said. "Basically, it was the run force. Our communication on who the primary run force person was, who the cutback person was and putting those guys in position so they can do their job."
Crennel admitted that at times in 2002 teams found the perimeter of the Patriots defense too easily. He said that when teams are outrunning the defenders outside adjustments have to be made by positioning players a little wider.
Outside linebackers Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest have received plenty of credit for their job in that department from Bill Belichick. By setting the edge and turning runners back into the traffic inside, where mammoth nose tackle Ted Washington has been instrumental in shoring up the middle, Vrabel and McGinest have been key.
"Sometimes when you do multiple things you get guys that are not in the best position to do the job," Crennel said. "So what we did was we said, 'OK, this is a problem. This is what we need to do to fix the problem.' We moved the guy wider, he has the primary run force, the guy inside has the cutback and as a result of it we're playing better."
"Defensively we understand what we have to do," defensive end Richard Seymour added. "If we stop them from running it to one side they're going to run to the other side. We have to do a good job up front communicating and knowing our assignments and who has contain. I don't see a change. If we stay consistent up front we'll be fine in this game."
The Patriots defense is right to be confident given its outstanding play all year long, but Davis and Foster might represent its stiffest test of the season. The Dolphins play a similar style on offense by relying on Ricky Williams and using timely play-action passes occasionally.
But Davis (1,444 yards, 4.5-yard average) and Foster (429 yards, 3.8-yard average) will present a different challenge. Both have good speed and power and can get to the outside for the big play. In the postseason, Foster's role expanded when Davis injured his quad and was forced to leave after his 64-yard run early in the Rams game.
Foster has 39 carries in the playoffs for 153 yards while Davis has remained solid with 51 carries for 266 yards. Davis is more of a north-south runner but will look to bounce outside occasionally if the opportunity presents itself. Although Foster does have power – as evidenced by his terrific 1-yard touchdown run against Philadelphia in the NFC title game – he's more of an outside threat looking to hit the edge. Harrison believes the different styles can't affect the team's approach.
"It's the same scheme but the mentality is a little different when you understand who's in the game," Harrison. "You have to understand one back likes to hit it up inside and go downhill right off the top whereas the other back likes to find his niche and hit it toward the outside some. So you definitely have to change your mentality but not the scheme."
Harrison made the bold statement about stopping the run but according to Vrabel the safety is the biggest reason for the team's success in that department.
"[The run defense] was porous last year," he began. "There's a fundamental philosophy in football that as an offense you want to run the ball and on defense you have to stop the run. It's an attitude and a big commitment we made. Rodney Harrison comes off the bus running to the football and he established that mindset back in training camp. He made sure that 4-yard gains in training camp weren't going to become 50-yarders so [the offense] could hear the cheers."
Come Sunday, the difference in the game will come down to who is hearing the cheers – Davis and Foster or the stout Patriots defense.