- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 31, 2004

HOUSTON. — The problem with this two-week hiatus before the Super Bowl is that it gives you too much time to think. And one of the things I’ve been thinking about — increasingly — is the matchup between the New England Patriots’ offensive line and the Carolina Panthers’ defensive line.

We already know how Warren Sapp views the impending battle. In an interview on “Pardon the Interruption,” he offered the opinion that “this defensive line of Carolina will dominate the front five of New England. I don’t even think it’s a fair matchup. I don’t see how [the Patriots] are getting it done, because I think Russ Hochstein started for them in the AFC Championship game, and I’ve seen Russ Hochstein block, and he couldn’t block either one of you two fellas. Damien Woody was the best lineman they had, but Russ Hochstein, trust me my friend, couldn’t block either of you two.”

It’s hard not to feel a little sorry for Hochstein. I mean, here the poor guy is, a virtual novice, being thrust into the starting lineup during the playoffs, and a former teammate is suggesting he couldn’t keep Mike Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser out of the New England backfield. (And neither, from what I understand, has much of a swim move.)

During Photo Day on Tuesday, Sapp sidled up to Hochstein and asked him, for the benefit of his NFL Channel audience, “How does it feel that I made you the center of the Super Bowl?” Hochstein icily declined to answer. His stock reply to anyone who mentions Sapp’s lip-flapping is, “I’m not worried about anything but the Carolina Panthers.”

Maybe Sapp knows what he’s talking about and maybe he doesn’t. The Hochstein he had to deal with in practice, remember, was just out of college (Nebraska), a fifth-round draft pick with tons to learn. In his time with the Patriots, though, Hochstein has gotten a chance to play a bit more and has even started a couple of games, one of them against the Redskins in September when Woody was hurt. He at least has some grasp of what he’s doing now.

It’s just that, in the Super Bowl, you’d prefer a little more than that, you’d prefer to have a left guard who isn’t living season to season, a left guard who doesn’t say stuff like, “I hope I’m still here next year.” Especially since the man who lines up to Hochstein’s left, center Dan Koppen, is a rookie sixth-round choice who expected to be playing special teams this season — that is, until veteran guard Mike Compton went down and forced Bill Belichick to start shuffling people.

An untested guard and a rookie center, side-by-side, having to deal with the most ferocious front four in the NFL? That doesn’t sound like the best of situations. Not when you consider the Patriots also have another projected backup, Tom Ashworth, filling in at right tackle for injured Adrian Klemm.

Somehow, the line kept it together in the AFC playoffs. Indeed, it didn’t give up a sack — even though Tom Brady threw the ball 78 times in two games — and it sprang Antowain Smith for some nice gains. But Tennessee’s and Indianapolis’ defensive fronts aren’t in Carolina’s class. The Panthers D-line is “a very unique group,” says Matt Light, the Pats’ left tackle, “in the sense that they all can beat you. It’s not like they have one guy that’s their premier pass rusher. It’s not like there’s one guy that’s doing all the damage out there.”

No, Julius Peppers, Brentson Buckner, Kris Jenkins and Mike Rucker — from left to right — are all a handful. And the best of them might be Jenkins, the Pro Bowl player out of Maryland, who will line up opposite … Russ Hochstein.

Jenkins and Co. have spent the week pooh-poohing Sapp’s remarks. “Just because he says [the Carolina front four will dominate] doesn’t mean we’re going to do it,” Kris says. “The Patriots have won 14 games in a row — and beaten some very good teams — so obviously their line is playing pretty well.”

What you have to remember about the Patriots, Rucker says, is that “they make it hard to get to the quarterback because they use a lot of three-step drops. Brady doesn’t hold the ball for very long. But everything they do isn’t a three-step drop — and when it isn’t, we’ve got to take advantage of it. The main thing is to not get discouraged, because there’s a lot more to rushing the passer than just getting a sack. If you get your hands up, you can tip a few passes and maybe get an interception. And if you can hit a quarterback 15 or 20 times, trust me, it’s going to affect him. He’s going to be sore.”

A football field is 100 yards long and 53⅓ yards wide. But Super Bowl XXXVIII, I suspect, is going to be decided in a much smaller space: the patch of ground occupied by Russ Hochstein — Warren Sapp’s buddy — and Dan Koppen. If they allow too many white jerseys to pass unimpeded, the favored Patriots and their wondrous winning streak will be in big, big trouble.

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