Common thread: Teams' role players play great defense

Posted: Tuesday, January 20, 2004

FOXBORO, Mass. Just who is Jarvis Green? And how did he get three sacks for New England in its 24-14 victory over Indianapolis in the AFC title game?

Answer: He's a role player on a team of role players.

The Patriots and their Super Bowl opponent, the Carolina Panthers, both fit that description.

And both teams win with punishing defense, so expect a low-scoring game Feb. 1 in Houston.

''We have shut out some teams, and we have had some good games at home where we didn't give up any points, but I don't think that we have had the perfect game yet,'' Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest said. ''Hopefully, we are saving it for the Super Bowl.''

Both head coaches, New England's Bill Belichick and Carolina's John Fox, used to be defensive coordinators. No wonder the over-under line set by Las Vegas is 38 fewer than 20 points per team.

''Obviously, John's a good coach, and he's done a tremendous job,'' Belichick said. ''Foxy's gone down there, he's built a tremendous team, a good program.''

Fox could say the same of Belichick, who coached the Patriots to the 2002 Super Bowl title and keeps finding the perfect way to use his players.

Green, for example, was plugged into the right spot by Belichick and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. Green's sack total from Sunday alone nearly equaled the 4 1/2 he has had since being picked in the fourth round of the 2002 draft out of LSU.

That kind of depth and diversity is one reason the Patriots are seven-point favorites over Carolina.

''It was a great time for Jarvis to step up. They were worried about other guys, and it opened the gates for him,'' said McGinest, one of those ''other guys'' the Colts were probably looking for.

There's another similarity between the Super Bowl teams: Neither boasts a quick-strike offense.

Carolina grinds it out on the ground with Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster. Quarterback Jake Delhomme occasionally looks downfield for Steve Smith, as he did on the 69-yard TD pass that beat St. Louis in double overtime in the second round of the playoffs.

But the Panthers rely a lot on their D, which shut down Philadelphia 14-3 Sunday in the NFC title game.

''The defense came out and did what they needed to do, and we came out a winner,'' linebacker Dan Morgan said. ''We have a lot of guys on this team who can make big-time plays, and defense wins championships.''

New England's offense also grinds it out often by air.

Antowain Smith rushed for 100 yards Sunday, but the Patriots generally move the ball methodically on 4-to-6-yard passes by Tom Brady that pretty much serve the same purpose as a running game.

So because there probably won't be many big offensive plays, the teams will eat the clock if they move the ball.

But that's not to say the defenses won't score.

In a 17-6 win over the New York Giants this season, the Patriots were outgained 199 yards to 29 in the first half. But New England led 7-3 at intermission because Matt Chatham another one of those ''Who's he?'' players scooped up a fumble and returned it for a touchdown.

The Super Bowl could have plenty of that: outstanding plays on defense and special teams, hallmarks of good squads. That's especially so in an era when the difference between boffo and bad teams is so small.

For example, Carolina beat Tampa Bay 12-9 in overtime by blocking two field goals plus what would have been the winning extra point after the Bucs scored on the final play of regulation. That game was in Tampa in Week 2 and turned around the season for both teams. The Panthers gained confidence by beating the defending Super Bowl champions, and the Bucs began questioning themselves.

Green wasn't the only hero Sunday who gained little attention until now.

Carolina's big star against Philadelphia was Ricky Manning Jr., who had three interceptions. And his pick set up the Delhomme-Smith connection that beat St. Louis.

The rookie is one of several young Panther players who are rising stars, along with Morgan, Julius Peppers, Mike Rucker and Kris Jenkins. Rucker has been around the longest this is his fifth year.

New England has those types of players, too.

Richard Seymour already is an All-Pro in his third season and got votes for NFL defensive player of the year. Eugene Wilson made a difficult switch from cornerback to safety as a rookie. Another rookie, Ty Warren, looked very impressive filling in for Seymour when he was hurt.

Who knows how good Jarvis Green might become when he matures.

If there's one common denominator among these up-and-comers it's this: All play defense.

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