The New England Patriots pride themselves on versatility and that aspect of the 3-4 defense is most important at outside linebacker. That's where Mike Vrabel, Willie McGinest and Rosevelt Colvin are asked to fill a variety of roles that range from playing stout on the line of scrimmage against the run to dropping into coverage to rushing the passer. In the Patriots creative schemes, though, that trio often draws special assignments, all of which involve using their combination of size, strength and speed to gain an advantage.
Physical play is often an element of those assignments because it is their strength. It could be jamming Brandon Stokley in the slot. It might be playing contain against a mobile quarterback. It could be spying a dangerous player or jamming a versatile back as he releases into his pass route. But whatever it is, the Patriots outside linebackers are often at the center of the Patriots game plan and that will be especially true again this week as they face the daunting task of containing Donovan McNabb and Brian Westbrook.
Watch McGinest, Vrabel and Colvin if you want to determine the Patriots plan for defending the two most versatile weapons on the Eagles offense. Their performance this week within the team defense that is so critical to the Patriots efforts might just determine the winner of Super Bowl XXXIX.
It's been popular this week to compare Westbrook and his abilities to those of the Rams Marshall Faulk. But would you compare a cheesesteak to fried ravioli? The offenses are different and so is the personnel around those two versatile running backs.
Eagles Head Coach Andy Reid did admit this week that he went back and watched tape of Super Bowl XXXVI to see how New England attacked Faulk, but it's unlikely New England can take the exact tact against Westbrook.
Back in Super Bowl XXXVI, the Patriots hit Faulk on every snap and made things difficult for him when he didn't have the ball. But doing that involves committing a defender to him regardless of the offensive play call or situation. It's much more difficult to do that to Westbrook on every snap because of the problems McNabb can present.
Keeping McNabb in the pocket might be priority No. 1 when it comes to defending the Eagles passing attack because once he leaves the pocket, he can do so much damage either running or throwing to receivers who break free in scramble mode. Perhaps the best way to keep McNabb confined is to rush five and try to collapse the pocket from all sides while the edge rushers maintain containment responsibilities rather than pin their ears back and rush upfield, which would leave escape lanes for McNabb.
But rushing five makes it more difficult to commit a defender to Westbrook on every play as the Patriots did with Faulk while often rushing four against Rams quarterback Kurt Warner. But both elements of the Patriots plan for slowing those two versatile Philly weapons involves near perfect execution by the outside linebackers, who often draw the tough assignments.
"There's a relationship [between defending the two] because you can't have a player do both things," Patriots Head Coach Belichick explained. "So whatever commitment you're making to McNabb, you can't commit to someone else and vice versa. Both players present significant challenges along with a lot of the other skill players on the Eagles. You can't double Westbrook on every play or blitz McNabb every play. [Defending the two] is certainly interrelated."
This is where preparation and game planning will be critical. The Patriots will certainly try to bang Westbrook around because that's the style of defense they play. But choosing when to do it and when to use the extra body to defend McNabb is a decision Belichick and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel will have to make.
"I think you can certainly try to jam Westbrook," Vrabel said. "We're going to have to know where both players are. One will be under center and one will be moving around. Donovan has made plays in the pocket and huge plays outside the pocket. He buys time for his receivers and they uncover and make big plays down the field."
That's what New England has to prevent, which is why McNabb is likely to be their top priority.
"He is the focal point of the offense in my opinion," Belichick said. "He makes all the throws. They run a lot of short passes, three-step drops and run a lot of play action and moving pocket passes like bootlegs and rollouts. They have a lot of vertical routes down the field with posts, double moves and seam routes. The offense has a number of different elements.
"He's a threat to run to buy more time and to scramble and gain yardage. When the ball is in his hands, there are a lot of different things to defend. He's done a good job reading coverages and moving the ball around. He uses all his receivers effectively, including his backs and tight ends. You have to defend him on all fronts and he's not always in the same place."
"Donovan is in a class all by himself," McGinest said. "He's one of the best athletes in the league. He can beat you with his arms and his feet. He's smart and experienced. He's played in a lot of big games and won a lot of games. You can't stop him; you can only contain him. Westbrook is a different player, but he's explosive."
McNabb is perhaps the biggest reason why Philly threw 547 times this season compared with 322 non-quarterback runs. But Westbrook is certainly capable of doing damage as evidenced by his selection to the Pro Bowl despite running only 177 times. Much of his production came as a receiver, where he caught 73 passes. He combined for 1,515 yards.
"I think if the Eagles made a big commitment to run the football, Westbrook would have a lot better numbers and they would have a lot better numbers," Vrabel believes. "But they don't. They have McNabb. They have T.O. They have a lot of weapons. You see Shawn Alexander and Ahman Green in the West Coast offense and Westbrook is in that category. He catches the ball better than they do and runs better routes than they do. So the emphasis in the running game isn't what it is in Pittsburgh or somewhere else.
"But we haven't defended them yet," Vrabel added. "When the game starts to unfold, you'll get a better idea of what we're trying to do and how we're trying to do it. It's likely to change during the game as well."
Colvin believes the Patriots just have to continue to play solid team defense and execute assignments on a play-by-play basis. "I think you want to keep McNabb in the pocket, but you don't want to get too complicated and do too many different things because that's when you get in trouble and open up a can of worms."
Veteran linebacker Roman Phifer laughed when asked about how best to defend the McNabb-Westbrook tandem because he wasn't about to reveal any game plan secrets, but he acknowledged the difficult task the defense faces.
"Westbrook is so elusive that it's hard to get a big hit on him. You have to make a sure tackle, but he causes problems without the ball because his elusiveness makes him difficult to jam. It's a team effort and will take more than one guy."
McGinest, for his part, doesn't agree with Belichick that defending the two versatile performers is at all related. "I don't think Donovan running out of the pocket has anything to do with what Westbrook is doing. They're two different players. We have to defend everybody. Everybody just has to play their assignments."
Nobody was suggesting, of course, not defending everyone, but the point is that it's unlikely New England can defend the versatile Westbrook the same way it did Faulk back in February of 2002 when it simply hit him on every play. The Patriots will have to pick and choose when to commit a defender to Westbrook and when to try to pressure McNabb with extra rushers.
How that strategy unfolds will be a critical part of the game's outcome.