- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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When the Patriots were preparing for Super Bowl XXXIX against the Philadelphia Eagles, New England coach Bill Belichick had a top defensive priority in mind. The key was keeping athletic, scrambling quarterback Donovan McNabb in the pocket.
So in one of the greatest changeups in Belichick's coaching tenure, he tore up the team's regular 3-4 defense, which was what the Eagles had studied for weeks in preparation for the Super Bowl. In its place, Belichick implemented a 4-3 with what players called a "Cali" front, a lighter defensive line whose focus was to ensure McNabb didn't have an easy escape route out of the pocket and had to play like a traditional quarterback.
It was a bold plan, one that required a lot of confidence in players because it wasn't anything they had executed over the course of the year. The unit full of smart, versatile players pulled it off on the NFL's biggest stage, the Patriots recording a 24-21 win as McNabb was forced to play between the tackles (1 rush, 0 yards).
It's a beautiful thing when an out-of-nowhere plan is successfully executed, and six years later, perhaps something similar will unfold when the Patriots visit the surging Denver Broncos and dangerous-when-out-of-the-pocket quarterback Tim Tebow.
What type of plan is Belichick drawing up for his defense?
This is one of the fascinating questions of a week that already has stomached a steady diet of Tebow, Tebow and more Tebow. While there has been an intense media focus on the second-year quarterback, not as much attention has been focused on the Patriots' plans to stop him.
On Wednesday, the first practice of the week and the time in which the game plan begins to get implemented, defenders buckled their chinstraps and talked about their expectation that the Broncos will be running. A lot.
That's why some of the buzzwords and catch phrases in the locker room this week have been "physical football," "assignment-sound," "discipline," "rally to the football" and "set the edge."
Of the 32 teams in the NFL, only four have attempted more rushes than passes (Denver, the Houston Texans, the Jacksonville Jaguars and the San Francisco 49ers), and no team has a greater disparity than the Broncos, with 433 rushes against 355 passes. The Broncos lead the NFL with an average of 156 rushing yards per game and Tebow is naturally a big part of that, totaling 94 carries for 517 yards and three touchdowns on the season.
"He can make plays with his feet, so you want to keep him in the pocket," said outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich. "It's playing tight. We've played a few quarterbacks who have the ability to get out of the pocket and make plays, and we have to make sure we do a good job of not letting him do that to us."
The Patriots could do so in a number of ways.
Against an attack that features a variety of scheme runs and the option, Belichick might opt for the less-is-more route and stay with the 4-3 to play it straight up. A strong case could be made that the standard 4-3 puts defenders in the best position to execute with the patience and discipline required against the Broncos' diverse rushing attack.
The Patriots have different variations of the 4-3 -- a heavier package with Brandon Deaderick (6-foot-4, 305) or Shaun Ellis (6-5, 290) at left end, and a lighter one with speed rusher Mark Anderson (6-4, 255). One would think either -- or maybe both -- will be in play Sunday in Denver.
Another possibility within a game plan is for Belichick to adopt a "spy" that keeps tabs on Tebow at all times, whether that's in the 4-3 or something else.
"We have a number of different players that we could do that with," Belichick said. "You need somebody that can tackle the quarterback, [but who you choose] depends on what the quarterback's skills are. I don't know if you want to spy [Ben] Roethlisberger with the same guy you'd want to spy Michael Vick with."
At 6-foot-3 and 236 pounds, Tebow can be tough to bring down, so a linebacker (Dane Fletcher?) might be the best fit if the Patriots spy.
As for other possibilities slowing down the Tebow-led attack, Belichick could also go off the board and try something completely different, like he did in Super Bowl XXXIX against the Eagles. The risk is that the Patriots have struggled for continuity on defense, and an ever-evolving game plan adds to the challenge.
Chances are the Patriots will mix in a little bit of everything against Tebow. At least that's what safety James Ihedigbo suggested.
"We have to do different things defensively, change it up [with] different looks and we definitely have to get after him," Ihedigbo said.
How the Patriots ultimately attempt to do so remains one of the compelling stories of the week.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.