INDIANAPOLIS — The greatest quarterback in this era will be staring across the line of scrimmage, with an array of unique and talented weapons at his disposal. He’ll be calm and cool, because that’s how Tom Brady always is. Rarely can he be shaken out of his game.
On the other side is a four-headed monster — a dangerous Giants pass rush with only one goal in mind. As Justin Tuck said, “The way to kill a snake is take off his head.” They know there’s only one way they can win. They have to do the impossible and shake up the unflappable Brady.
“Anybody can be rattled,” says defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. “Tom Brady is a great quarterback, but at the end of the day he’s just a quarterback. It’s not like he’s God.”
The fact that he is mortal won’t make the Giants’ task any easier on Sunday night when they take on the AFC champion Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. The Giants’ much-maligned defense, which has had six outstanding weeks after a season of misery, has to figure out a way to shut down the second-ranked offense in the league. They have to stop Brady, contain the slippery Wes Welker, and figure out some way to simultaneously cover New England’s two big, fast and powerful tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
They’ve been on a roll throughout the playoffs, starting with their virtual shutout of Atlanta. They were outstanding in stopping Aaron Rodgers and the explosive Packers, too. But there is something different about the Patriots, and it’s not just Brady. Their diverse set of weapons makes them one of the most unique offenses the league has ever seen.
“It’s different because of the two tight ends that they have,” says former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner. “That’s what I think is unique and special about it. That’s the different dynamic because you haven’t seen guys on the inside position that can do what these guys can do.
“The problem now is these guys are so good, so talented, like wide receivers, and it’s a real distinct advantage for the offense. These guys, you can’t figure out if they’re going to run or pass. And if you’re behind the 8-ball with a guy like Hernandez or Gronk, you’re done. You lose.”
When the Giants pulled off their shocking upset in Super Bowl XLII four years ago, they shut down a record-setting offense. The Patriots that year got 50 touchdown passes from Brady and put up an NFL-record 589 points in the regular season. They were much more explosive than this Patriots team.
In some ways, though, this current monster created by Bill Belichick and his Penn State-bound offensive coordinator, Bill O’Brien, might be even more dangerous because of exactly what Warner said. Welker, all 5-9 of him, is still the No. 1 receiver, with 122 catches for 1,529 yards and nine touchdowns this season. But the 6-6, 265-pound Gronkowski (90/1,327/17) and the 6-1, 245-pound Hernandez (79/910/7) are the second and third options. Some teams have tight ends that are just as good or better.
Nobody, though, has two.
And assuming Gronkowski’s sprained left ankle heals enough to allow him to play, the whole package presents an incredible challenge to the Giants defense. This was the 27th-ranked defense in the league during the regular season, but it began to turn its season around in Week 16 when the pass rush started to get healthy. In the playoffs, Big Blue has allowed an average of only 320.3 yards per game.
But in the Super Bowl, defensive coordinator Perry Fewell’s unit will have to be even better.
“I think as a defensive unit, we’ve had a lot of struggles this year, but right now we have a bad-ass mentality,” says safety Antrel Rolle. “That’s the way we like to look at it. That’s the way we want to keep it. And we’re very confident in our approach.
“But most of all, I think we’re very smart in our approach, meaning that everyone is on the same page at the same time and we have a clear understanding of what every guy is doing. We’re a very intellectual team, and we take pride in that. But, at the same time, when the bell goes off on Sunday, we’re in attack mode.”
If there is one thing the Giants have known all season, it’s that they can attack the quarterback. They finished third in the NFL with 48 sacks, despite losing one of their best pass rushers, Osi Umenyiora, for seven games with injuries. There may not be a team in the NFL that can match their pass rush of Umenyiora (nine sacks), Justin Tuck (five), Jason Pierre-Paul (16.5), and occasionally Mathias Kiwanuka (3.5).
Pressuring the quarterback has never been a concern. The Giants’ problem most of the season was in coverage, which could be a particular worry against Welker, Hernandez and “Gronk.”
Over the last six weeks, the coverage has been improved, and it hasn’t been by accident, either. Yes, the defensive line’s return to health was a big factor. But somewhere around the Giants’ disastrous, 49-24 loss in New Orleans on Nov. 28 — when they secondary was torched for 372 passing yards and 577 total yards by the Saints – the defensive backs’ mood turned serious and they started to work on their games.
For most of the season the DBs had been gathering at least once a week at one of their houses to go over film, study their playbooks, and have a little fun. After the Saints debacle, they began meeting two or three times per week and, in the words of cornerback Aaron Ross, it became “serious business.” They were being embarrassed.
And they didn’t want that to happen again.
“All the great ones in this league do that,” says cornerbacks coach Peter Giunta. “They spend the extra time studying, and when they do it as a group it’s much more efficient because they’ve got to communicate with each other during the course of the game. When they do it as a group it’s very, very effective.”
Adds Rolle: “Those sessions were great. We were just trying to make sure everyone was on the same page at the same time. It helped to have eight set of eyes instead of two.”
The results were obvious. Since that ugly loss to the Saints, the Giants have allowed only 240.1 passing yards per game — 200.6 in the playoffs. Almost all of the credit for that has gone to a revived pass rush, which has totaled 20 sacks in the last five games. But that’s not fair, because some of those sacks have been coverage sacks, too.
“I had a coach — Coach (Nick) Saban — that always told me, ‘If you show me a good defensive end, I’ll show you a good cornerback,’” says cornerback Corey Webster. “I think we did a great job of getting better all year long. We might not have started the season that way, but we are great now.”
They’ll find out how great on Sunday night when they face, arguably, their greatest test yet. The first time these two teams met — a 24-20 Giants victory on Nov. 6 — the always-cool Brady, who threw for 5,235 yards this season, was only sacked twice and threw for 342 yards against the Giants. Welker caught nine passes for 136 yards. Gronkowski caught eight for 101 yards and a touchdown. And Hernandez added four catches, 35 yards and a touchdown, too.
The Giants fought the Patriots to a 0-0 halftime tie, gave one of their finest defensive efforts of the season’s first half, and Brady still completed 21 passes to his Big Three for 272 yards and two touchdowns.
And since then, the mighty Patriots have won 10 straight games.
The Giants have hinted all week that their plan will be to bump Welker, Hernandez and Gronkowski often at the line of scrimmage, disrupting their timing and buying an extra split second for the Giants’ rush.
That is a formula many teams have tried before without much success. But it will still be the key to which team wins Super Bowl XLVI. If Brady has time and his targets run free, then, as Warner says, “You lose.” The key for the Giants is for their defense to be as disruptive as it has been over their last six games.
In that case, it can’t just be all about their pass rush. They need the coverage working to near perfection, too.
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