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.
Monday: Vince Wilfork vs. Giants’ O-line
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Giants' Week 9 win in New England was that they pulled off that victory without the services of either running back Ahmad Bradshaw or wide receiver Hakeem Nicks.
Brandon Jacobs played well in Bradshaw's stead, and Jake Ballard and Mario Manningham produced TD receptions, but the Giants' offense is a much different, much more dynamic animal when Bradshaw and Nicks are in the lineup. We've seen just how good New York can be this postseason, with those two back healthy.
Bradshaw's quickness and ability to bounce outside brings a completely different element to New York's offense than Jacobs can provide. Nicks, meanwhile, is one of the NFL's premier receiving threats, both downfield and over the middle.
How might their contributions impact this Super Bowl rematch? Time, once again, to Break It Down:
When Bradshaw took the ball and headed off left tackle, it looked set up for a loss. The 49ers read the play well and Bradshaw found himself facing a charging Patrick Willis, one of the NFL's best linebackers.
But Bradshaw simply turned on the jets and outraced Willis outside. He wound up gaining nine yards on a play that could have gone for a two- or three-yard loss. Bradshaw showed a similar ability to kick a run outside later in the game, on a call that was designed to shoot up the middle.
The 49ers closed off Bradshaw's route, so he bounced outside, beat the defense to the perimeter and picked up six yards.
In the grand scheme of things, neither play was game-breaking. For the Patriots, though, Bradshaw's speed presents a problem.
Prior to New England's game with Baltimore, Patriots coach Bill Belichick talked about how much difficulty his team has had this season in dealing with dual-threat running backs. He specifically mentioned Buffalo's C.J. Spiller and Miami's Reggie Bush. Bradshaw may not have the pure burst of those two backs, but his overall skill set is similar.
Back in Week 16, Bush accounted for 139 yards (113 rushing) against the Patriots. He actually had a decent amount of success running between the tackles that day, but there were also several plays where he turned nothing into something.
Case in point: This run that Miami had set to go up the middle.
The Patriots closed that off, but Bush kicked it to his left and got outside for a six-yard gain. Again, not a huge chunk of yards, but enough to keep New England wary.
Between New England's pass rush, spearheaded by the hard-charging Vince Wilfork, and the amount of attention the Pats will have to pay to the Giants' wide receivers, containing Bradshaw will be a paramount task.
Bradshaw won't make that easy, though. Even on passing plays where he's not a specific target, Bradshaw has a knack for slipping out and giving Manning an extra option.
Here, he started a 2nd-and-long by cutting the legs out from under Willis with a terrific block:
He then slipped out of the backfield and turned himself into a receiver. Manning hit him for about a 7-yard gain. San Francisco was giving up the underneath routes since the Giants needed 21 for a first down, but you can get a sense for how versatile Bradshaw is.
Which brings us back to Bush, and how he found success against the Patriots.
Frequently, Miami used Bush as a receiver coming out of the backfield. On the play pictured below, Bush is to QB Matt Moore's right.
The Patriots managed to get a ton of pressure on Moore on the play. However, Bush sprinted out of the backfield and wound up one-on-one with DB James Ihedigbo. Bush absolutely turned him inside out and gave Moore, even with defenders in his face, an easy target.
New England cannot allow Bradshaw to find openings quite that easily.
Part of why that will be difficult, though, is that the Patriots' secondary will have its hands full with the Giants' wide receivers -- and, in particular, Nicks and Victor Cruz.
Nicks is enjoying a sensational postseason with four touchdown grabs. He's a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses, whether he's the short or deep target on a passing play.
This is the catch-22 in defending Nicks -- and in defending Cruz, for that matter. If you defend against the deep ball, as the 49ers did on this play, then the Giants will kill you with quick, easy passes.
Nicks' route on this third down was a simple slant. He beat Culliver off the line, freed up just enough space to provide a target for Manning and made the catch before Whitner could even become a factor.
The one way to disrupt that feel Manning has with his receivers is to get pressure on the Giants QB. San Francisco did a solid job with that goal Sunday, which is why New York struggled in the second half.
A week earlier, Green Bay failed.
For example: Nicks' 67-yard touchdown grab in the first half, when Green Bay rushed three.
Whether it's Nicks or not, some Giants receiver will get open if Manning has that kind of time. It just happened to be Nicks on this particular play because, rather than going to press coverage with deep safety help, as the 49ers tried, Green Bay sagged Tramon Williams well off Nicks.
Nicks found an opening in the coverage and Manning hit him. The Packers made the situation worse when Charlie Peprah missed his tackle attempt on Nicks, freeing him up to break the play loose.
And Nicks is too fast and strong to give any extra space.
So how does New England stop Nicks?
Well, step one will be figuring out who to put on the field. The Patriots' banged-up, thinned-out secondary was a jigsaw puzzle of random pieces Sunday against the Ravens.
The photo below is from one of Baltimore's late drives. Up top, covering Torrey Smith, was Kyle Arrington (green arrow); next to him, wide receiver-turned-cornerback Julian Edelman (blue arrow) had the difficult responsibility of defending Anquan Boldin; and at the bottom of the photo, little-used Sterling Moore (yellow arrow) had Lee Evans.
New England's other CB option, Devin McCourty, slid to safety on this play, as he did frequently Sunday. When he was at cornerback, McCourtey had issues staying with Smith.
Is this how the Patriots will line up when the Giants spread the field? If so, it's likely either Arrington or Moore will lock up on Nicks, while Edelman deals with Cruz in the slot. That's advantage: Giants, all over the place. It also means that New England may have to choose between providing safety help against Nicks or bringing extra heat on Manning. But no matter how you slice it, there should be some room for Bradshaw underneath, and Nicks could enjoy some major mismatches on the outside.