- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 2, 2005

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Asked to name the NFL’s current top defensive minds, New England Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel mentally leafed through a few options before settling on, well, himself.

“Romeo Crennel, Bill Belichick …,” the stocky coach listed with a big smile on his face.

Crennel was just kidding, of course. But there’s little doubt anyone will have to look beyond the confines of Alltel Stadium on Sunday to find a solid sampling of the league’s most admired defensive schemers.

On one side will be Patriots coach Belichick, a modern Sun Tzu who is credited with smothering Peyton Manning twice in the playoffs and Kurt Warner in Super Bowl XXXVI, and top lieutenant Crennel. On the other side will be Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, an architect of less hype and similar talent — perhaps the critics’ choice for X’s-and-O’s mastery.

The clash of defensive playbooks at Super Bowl XXXIX could determine the outcome between these two highly balanced teams. The clubs meet after 13 days of preparation and in an era in which the strategic pendulum seems to have swung from brute force to cerebral dexterity.

“I’m not saying you have to be the brightest guy in the world to play on this defense, but you have to have a lot of football knowledge, understand what an offense is trying to do and create mismatches,” Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson said. “Really, the NFL has become that: about matchups.”

New England certainly is more glorified in its splicing of opposing offenses. By confusing the Indianapolis Colts’ Manning in the AFC Championship game following the 2003 season and in a divisional game 10 days ago, Belichick and Crennel proved even the game’s best player is no match for the Patriots.

The actual tactics are almost immaterial. New England disguised coverages and blitzes, got a few hits on Manning and made Indianapolis one-dimensional by stopping the run. The St. Louis Rams’ Warner was similarly helpless in the Super Bowl three years ago when confronted with the Patriots’ targeted, creative formations.

To listen to the talking heads, the scheming is incredibly complex. In some ways, it is. But beneath the zone blitzes, nine-man secondaries and multiple looks is a simple blueprint: Each week Belichick and Crennel figure out several keys that, if executed, will undermine the opposing offense.

And in contrast to the farcical “keys” that sportswriters love to dish out (geez, will not turning the ball over really give the Cowboys an edge?), those offered up by the Patriots’ coaching staff usually end up being critical pressure points — the football equivalent of a Vulcan neck pinch.

“Maybe it’s doubling a receiver. Maybe it’s putting our safeties down in the box,” Crennel said. “Whatever it is we decide we need to do, we put that plan together and then try to execute it on gameday.”

The primary difference between the Patriots’ network of game plans and Johnson’s might be called the standard deviation: Whereas New England is apt to show a whole new look, Johnson never strays far from the blitzing base defense he has made so successful.

“He doesn’t change,” Eagles linebacker Jeremiah Trotter said. “He’s going to live by the blitz and die by the blitz.”

But within that basic mentality, Johnson finds myriad nuances to exploit. His biggest focus is on the opponent’s pass protection, which he said he will study “at least six or seven hours” each week.

“That’s obvious,” Belichick said. “The way they set up their blitzes and their blitz packages — it always works into the weakness of the pass protection. … They get away from where your blockers are and try to blitz where they aren’t.”

Unlike Belichick, Johnson doesn’t possess a portfolio of signature performances. But he has done a great job containing the Green Bay Packers’ Brett Favre, and his masterstroke might have come in the recent NFC Championship game against the Atlanta Falcons.

Dynamic quarterback Michael Vick looked helpless against Johnson’s scheme, which had flipped right end Derrick Burgess and left end Jevon Kearse. The speedy Kearse was free to run on Vick’s preferred roll-out side, while Burgess patiently held the pocket on the other side. By game’s end, Vick had just 162 total yards, and Philadelphia had its first ticket to the Super Bowl since 1981.

“It really starts with getting your matchup,” Johnson explained. “Who do we have to take away? Who do we have to stop? How good are they in certain situations?”

This week, both offenses are plenty good in a variety of situations. It’s up to a few vaunted defensive minds to figure out how to stop them.

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