Foes routinely confused by Pats' schemes

HOUSTON -- They will don helmets, not dunce caps, for Super Bowl XXXVIII. Good thing for the offensive line units of the New England Patriots and the Carolina Panthers since, given the defensive duplicity of the two clubs, this will be a thinking man's game.

Offensive linemen tend to be, for nearly every team in the league, the brightest players on the roster. On Sunday night, when the two quintets are hunkered down in their three-point stances and attempting to decipher what is happening across the battle line, it might not hurt to be Mensa-certified.

"Recognition skills are going to be critically important in this game," conceded Carolina center Jeff Mitchell. "Part of (New England's) strength is that they can do a lot of things out of different looks. I mean, because they have so many of those linebacker/end types of guys, they can jump into a four-man front from a three(-man) look without having to run a lot of 'sub' guys onto the field. You have to make sure of what you're looking at. We're going to have to be mentally sharp."

Indeed, one of the hallmarks of every Bill Belichick-designed defense is its keen ability to move in and out of different fronts with uncommon facility. Bad enough that once the play begins, a quarterback is forced to divine his way through the myriad coverages the Patriots camouflage so well.

For the Carolina linemen, though, the pressure will be on even before the snap.

Regarded as a 3-4 "base" defense, New England more often than not is actually a 4-3 team. The Patriots, for instance, played virtually the entire AFC championship game in their four-man "nickel" look, with just two down linemen on the field, surrounded by hybrid defenders Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel, linebackers aligned as ends.

New England even possesses versatile down linemen, with Pro Bowl defender Richard Seymour having started games in 2003 at both end spots in the 3-4 and all four positions in the four-man front. The only position at which he did not line up is the nose tackle spot in the 3-4.

Noted one Carolina assistant: "We're doing a lot of homework on how they use (Seymour) because, no matter where he is, the guy is disruptive."

Even from the "nickel" look, which should by nature create some running creases, the Patriots don't allow an opponent's ground game much momentum. Testimony to that: New England ranked fourth against the run during the regular season and didn't allow a rush for more than 23 yards.

"Their discipline," said Panthers left guard Kevin Donnalley, "is incredible. They are a smart team, they don't leave any gap unprotected, and we have to match wits with them."

Then again, come Sunday night, the Panthers offensive linemen won't have to be the only blockers clearly focused on what is transpiring in front of them.

The Carolina defense rarely diverges from a standard 4-3 look, and prefers to create a pass rush without committing linebackers, especially on early downs. And so the New England linemen are just as wary as their Panthers counterparts about quickly discerning just what Carolina is attempting to do upfront.

From a schematic standpoint, the widely-held perception is that the New England defense is far more exotic, but the Patriots' offensive linemen have verbalized already at an early juncture of the week their respect for the tricky stunts and twists the Panthers line will throw at them.

One of the themes of the week, of course, is the anonymous nature of the New England line, and the fact it is one of the lowest-paid units in recent championship game history. But if they are a bit shy in the wallet, the Patriots linemen aren't short on brainpower.

"You can't be a (dumb guy) and play offensive line in this league," allowed right guard Joe Andruzzi. "This game will certainly prove that point."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.