To get you ready for Super Bowl XLVI, "Break It Down" will take a closer look at five matchups, one per day, that will be critical to the Patriots-Giants showdown.
Vince Wilfork was a man amongst boys Sunday. The Patriots' beefy defensive tackle proved nearly impossible to handle for Baltimore's offensive line, no matter where he lined up. He technically registered just 1.0 sack, but his presence in the Ravens' backfield altered several more plays.
Come Super Bowl Sunday, Wilfork most likely will find himself matched up against Giants center David Baas or right guard Kevin Boothe. That duo -- and New York's entire offensive line -- struggled mightily in pass protection at San Francisco.
How might New England use Wilfork two Sundays from now? Let's look back at the conference title games for some answers.
New England made a switch to a 4-3 base defense from its long-standing 3-4 look this season -- possibly part of the reason that defense had so many issues at the start of the year. The Pats still employ some 3-4 techniques (two-gap principles, to be specific) and even revert back to the old 3-4 look at times (we'll get into the latter thought shortly), but the 4-3 gives New England a little more flexibility with how to use Wilfork.
We'll start with a third-down play for Baltimore in the second half, deep in Patriots' territory. Wilfork lined up over left guard Ben Grubbs, with Joe Flacco in the shotgun.
This play came after two-plus quarters of Wilfork wreaking havoc up front. As such, the Ravens paid him extra attention, with Grubbs getting inside help from center Matt Birk, who also provided some support for Marshal Yanda's block of Gerard Warren.
However, as you can see, that 3-on-2 protection in the middle led to some problems, namely, free pass-rushers elsewhere:
Let's rewind to Wilfork's only sack, which came on a 3rd-and-15 in the first quarter.
The Patriots utilized sort of a modified 3-4 look here, though they actually had just two defensive linemen (Wilfork, boxed in the middle, and Mark Anderson to his right) on the field. The third "lineman" was linebacker Rob Ninkovich, set as a defensive end.
But this setup left Wilfork over center Matt Birk.
As we saw time and again Sunday, Birk could not handle Wilfork one-on-one. The Giants definitely will take notice of that domination from Wilfork in situations where he's over the center -- given what we saw Sunday from Baas, he'll have issues too.
On Wilfork's sack, Birk initially provided some room for Flacco. But when the Baltimore QB couldn't find anyone open, Wilfork used a strong swim move to blow by Birk, who had no help.
Baltimore had similar problems when it tried to block Wilfork straight-up in New England's four-man fronts as well. As illustrated by the first two pictures up top, when the Patriots went to four men on the line, Wilfork faced off against Grubbs.
Take notice of the blue line in the picture below -- that's the original line of scrimmage for the play.
And look at how far Wilfork has driven Grubbs back:
That's seven yards deep, which makes it pretty easy to see why Flacco had issues on the play. Wilfork utilized that same force in the fourth quarter to blow up a critical 4th-down play.
With Baltimore down three and driving, the Patriots swapped back to a 3-4 look, with all three defensive linemen squeezed in tight near the ball. Ninkovich was standing up on the left edge of the D-line -- the Patriots use him as a rush linebacker/lineman hybrid in a lot of packages (like that 3-4 we looked at earlier), but he stayed back almost as a spy on Flacco in this instance.
So, the Patriots sent three rushers.
Wilfork, up against Birk again, obliterated Baltimore's center.
Again, notice where the line of scrimmage is ... and compare it to where Wilfork and Birk are as Wilfork gets his hand on Flacco.
How will the Giants counter Wilfork's sheer power up front? Are the Giants even capable of fully countering?
Sunday wasn't the best performance for Big Blue's O-line, which allowed six sacks and had major, major trouble dealing with Ray McDonald inside.
San Francisco's 3-4 featured, for most of Sunday's game, McDonald in the middle, flanked by Aldon Smith and Justin Smith on either side of him. In the play below McDonald lined up over top of Baas, the Giants' center.
You're going to notice right away the types of problems the Giants had Sunday, many of them coming because they simply could not block San Francisco's pass-rushers in one-on-one situations.
McDonald forced Baas to get some inside help from right guard Chris Snee, which in turn, freed up Aldon Smith to stunt inside and come clean against Manning.
Why were the Giants forced to provide Baas with some extra assistance? Well, here's an example of what happened when Baas tried to block McDonald -- who gives away at least 30 or 40 pounds to Wilfork -- by himself. Bass, No. 64, let's McDonald push past him.
The combination of speed and power proved to be too much, repeatedly, for Baas to deal with. In Baas' defense, he hobbled off the field early with what was described as an "abdominal contusion," so he likely played most of this game at less than 100 percent.
Still, he did not hold up well in passing situations.
But it wasn't just Baas. When the 49ers showed four men up front -- with Aldon Smith standing up on the right side of the line -- that pushed Justin Smith inside against Kevin Boothe and shifted McDonald over opposite Snee.
On this play in particular, Baas came over to help Boothe block Justin Smith. But Snee could not stymie McDonald in a one-on-one situation, either. Like the Wilfork plays, notice where the line of scrimmage is here (New York's 48) and how far McDonald (directly in front of Manning) has pushed Snee back.
The Giants have to figure out some way, between now and Super Bowl Sunday, to shore up their pass protection. Maybe they ask more of fullback Henry Hynoski or keep tight ends Jake Ballard and Travis Beckum in to block.
Whatever the solution, it's hard to envision anyone on the Giants' O-line stopping Wilfork one-on-one. Given Baas' issues slowing McDonald, it would not be a surprise to see New England line Wilfork up over the Giants' center on most passing plays.
That, almost certainly, will force the Giants to use Boothe or Snee to help double-team Wilfork. How well New York does on offense will then depend on the other three offensive linemen holding their blocks and the backs/tight ends picking up any blitzers.
But it can be done. The Giants allowed just one sack each to the Packers and Falcons.
How? Well, first and foremost, the blocking was just flat-out better in those games than it was Sunday. However, up against Atlanta's four-man front, New York had some success by using a tight end in protection.
Here's one example from that wild-card round game, with Jake Ballard on the left side of the line.
The Falcons rushed four on this play, and the Giants' protection was perfect. With some help from David Diehl, Ballard closed off Manning's blindside. Next to that duo, Boothe stood his man up.
And on the right side, Baas delivered a solid block after the snap on defensive tackle Curtis Lofton, then handed him off to Snee and Kareem McKenzie and turned his attention to John Abraham.
Manning wound up throwing a touchdown pass down the middle on the play. When the Giants' QB has time, he's playing at an extremely high level right now -- as are his talented wide receivers.
This play is the blueprint for the Giants when the Patriots don't blitz. At least one or two linemen will have to hold up in man-on-man situations, but if that happens, New York can drop extra help in for whichever player is responsible for Wilfork.
Keeping the Patriots' big DT from bull-rushing into the backfield will be a major point of emphasis for the Giants. It won't be easy to do, and New York will need to be a lot better up front than it was against San Francisco to have any hope.