Versatility key for Eagles, Patriots on defense

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- During the final season of his celebrated college career at Southern California in 1993, Willie McGinest was a veritable defensive whirling dervish, logging time at all four line positions, and at middle linebacker and weakside 'backer as well.

He did everything, recalled legendary Trojans coach John Robinson last week, but hawk hot dogs and popcorn at halftime.

With McGinest slicing and dicing USC opponents who first had to locate the versatile defender before they could attempt to block him, such a Vegematic approach helped make him a two-time All-America honoree. Eleven seasons into his NFL career, the here-there-and-everywhere role in which McGinest was reared has helped to make the New England Patriots standout a perfect fit for the defensive conjurings of head coach Bill Belichick and coordinator Romeo Crennel.

Playing a scheme in which versatility is paramount, McGinest has prospered, and he isn't the only member of the Patriots' defense to discover that resourcefulness is a commodity that the New England staff highly values.

"If you can't do a lot of different things, and do most of them well, it's hard to fit into this defense," allowed McGinest. "This is pretty much a defense that demands that you be an all-around player, that you have some flexibility to you, and adapt well. But know what? We have those kinds of guys. I doubt there are many occasions when Romeo has drawn up a coverage or blitz scheme or something and thought to himself, 'Hey, wait a minute, that guy can't handle that.' Probably the more athletic and active you are, the better fit you are, because, man, with all the things we do, it's like a chess match out there."

Indeed, for all the X-and-O aficionados, Super Bowl XXXIX offers a compelling subplot, given the fertile imaginations of the defensive gurus involved in Sunday night's contest, and the manner in which Crennel and Philadelphia Eagles counterpart Jim Johnson will attempt to transfer their exotic doodlings to the real-life playing field.

Remember the 1993 flick "Searching for Bobby Fischer"? Were the producers to ever consider a sequel, this place and this week would be ideal for filming. Super Bowl XXXIX features grandmasters of matchup theory, along with enough playing pieces to stymie even Deep Blue2, the latest generation of IBM-created chess computer.

One big difference: Johnson and Crennel will be moving around playmakers, not pawns, in an attempt to create an advantage.

Much of the focus during this run-up week to the championship game has been devoted to discussions of the myriad formations the two offenses might employ Sunday evening. It will be surprising to some pundits, for instance, if New England doesn't open the game in an "empty" set, with five wide receivers, a maneuver that would likely force the Eagles to take Pro Bowl middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter off the field and to play "nickel" packages at the outset. Just as predictable is that Philadelphia offensive coordinator Brad Childress will align Brian Westbrook in four or five different spots to see if he can get the elusive tailback out in space with a one-on-one matchup.

But some of the most compelling maneuvering will come on the defensive side, where both coordinators are blessed with hybrid performers, active and savvy players who can and will move around, sometimes in confounding gambits.

Eagles defensive ends Jevon Kearse and Derrick Burgess are apt to reprise the left-and-right switching maneuvers that proved so effective in containing Falcons quarterback Michael Vick in the NFC championship game. The goal in the Super Bowl, however, won't be so much to corral Tom Brady in the pocket, but to display some different rush looks to the New England offensive line.

Certainly free safety Brian Dawkins will "walk up" to a linebacker spot on occasion. And versatile linebackers like Ike Reese, who plays predominantly in the "nickel," will align in different spots, including as a pass rusher.

There are times, as well, when the New England defense will resemble a sort of football-related Chinese fire drill, with players in motion. Outside linebackers McGinest and Mike Vrabel will be standing up in a two-point stance on one play, and rushing the passer with their hands on the ground, aligned as ends, on the next snap. In fact, Crennel will not hesitate to play the veterans who comprise the NFL's deepest and most active linebacker corps at any position.

All six linebackers who play from scrimmage for New England -- McGinest, Vrabel, Rosevelt Colvin, Ted Johnson, Tedy Bruschi and Roman Phifer -- are versatile masters of movement. On the defensive line, where New England's "base" 3-4 is an amoeba-like organism that can instantly morph into a 4-3 because of the flexibility of the linebackers, Richard Seymour will play end and tackle at various times in the game. When the Patriots go to a "sink" look and move their ends inside to cover up the Philadelphia guards, Ty Warren, like Seymour will become a tackle.

In a secondary ravaged by injury, and with both starting cornerbacks from their Super Bowl XXXVIII victory on injured reserve, anything goes for the Patriots, as Eagles coaches have discovered. Troy Brown, a wide receiver for 11 seasons, has suddenly become a "nickel" corner in his 12th year. Career linebacker Don Davis has played at safety this season. Free safety Eugene Wilson, a college corner who moved inside as a rookie in 2004, has been forced by injuries to return to the edge spot when the body count grew perilously thin.

"You look at tape," said Childress, "and you see No. 51 (Davis) lined up in the secondary, as a safety, and your first reaction is to rub your eyes. You're thinking, 'Wait a minute, I saw that play wrong, that can't be a 50-something number playing back there, can it?' And, yeah, sure enough, it is. That's part of the challenge of preparing for these guys. Their goal is to confuse you and they're pretty good at it."

Fact is, the confusion level that figures to be a component of Super Bowl XXXIX really is a testament to the genius of the defensive coaches in the game, but also to their skills in identifying and mentoring uniquely versatile players.

Philadelphia signed the wondrously athletic Kearse because they wanted to add speed to the pass rush, and to provide another great player for Johnson's much-celebrated blitzes, and Eagles coaches are now blending his all-around skills into their game plans. Kearse is probably, from simply a pure, athletic standpoint, well-rounded enough to line up at tight end on offense (which he won't do on Sunday evening). He certainly fits well into the Eagles' mentality of finding athletes who can run and then putting them in positions to chase the football as obstacle-free as possible.

The defenses designed by Belichick, and taught by Crennel, have historically revolved around hybrid linebackers, 260-pounders who could move with some facility into and out of the line of scrimmage. Bruschi, for instance, is a former college defensive lineman who found a home playing in the Belichick blueprint.

On Sunday, he is one of the chess pieces that Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb will have to keep tabs on because the wily, nine-year veteran is apt to line up anywhere from pass-rushing end to middle linebacker to "nickel" linebacker. For both the quarterbacks, in fact, recognition skills will be critical on Sunday night.

Both signal-callers, it seems, understand that.

"At least in chess," noted Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, "you get some time to study the other guy's move. I mean, he moves his (playing) piece and you don't necessarily have to react immediately. This is a lot different. You have to assimilate all those moves instantly, react to them, and make the right call. And neither of the defenses in this game make it easy to do that. There are times, just by the nature of how these two defenses operate, where you're going to feel backed into a corner."

And where, it seems, one flawed interpretation of what the other guy's defensive moves really mean can turn check into checkmate pretty quickly.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.