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
The Giants' defensive line did not have a monster statistical day when New York knocked off New England back in Week 9, but the pass rush did enough to disrupt Tom Brady's timing and comfort level.
How'd they pull off that trick? Well, some of it had to do with the sheer talent level of the Giants' line itself -- Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora form a pass-rushing trio unlike any other in the NFL. But New York also shifted its personnel around, particularly safety Deon Grant, who played almost a linebacker role for much of the game.
So how does this all impact Super Bowl XLVI. Let's break it down ...
This is the setup for one of the Giants' two sacks of Brady, and it speaks to New York's constant shifting looks on that Sunday. Here, you have Justin Tuck (No. 91) and Jason Pierre-Paul (No. 90) lined up in what would normally be defensive tackle slots, with Osi Umenyiora (72) and Mathias Kiwanuka (94) on the outside.
Also take notice of Grant (34), who's on the right of the Giants' three-man linebacker stance.
Tuck and Pierre-Paul inside caused problems for the Patriots on this play. Tuck burst off the ball to his right, chewing up the attention of multiple linemen. That allowed Pierre-Paul to twist back inside to the opening created by Tuck's power move.
On the outside the Giants had one-on-one setups and, in addition to Pierre-Paul coming through, Umenyiora eventually got around Matt Light to chew up Brady's remaining space.
Here's another example of the Giants' varied looks up front from a later strip of Brady that resulted in a turnover.
In this example the Giants had three down linemen -- Umenyiora, Pierre-Paul and Tuck, from left to right -- and showed blitz with Boley (boxed in orange) and Grant (yellow).
Boley wound up forcing the turnover here by kicking back outside around a double-team on Umenyiora. Because Umenyiora was able to drive upfield himself, there's no one back to hand off Boley to -- the only real option here would be for Brady to step up and fire one, but he did not see Boley coming on the blindside.
Boley's seen an increased role in the Giants' pass rush in the postseason -- that sack of Brady in Week 9 was actually his lone sack of the regular season. He doubled that number against the Packers in the divisional round, with his biggest play coming on a 4th-and-5 late, as the Giants clung to a slim lead.
The Giants went with a four-man line against Green Bay's four-wide set, with Boley (59) pressed up close.
As we saw against New England, the strategy the Giants used here was to swing Boley wide around the pass rush. The Packers picked up the three Giants in the middle, but were unable to corral either Pierre-Paul off the left side or Boley, who wound up being blocked by running back Brandon Saine.
That resulted in a huge sack and helped the Giants advance to the NFC title game.
There, the Giants registered two sacks on Alex Smith -- a number that could have been a lot higher if not for Smith's ability to escape trouble. The impressive thing about that performance for New York was that a lot of the pressure on Smith came without any exotic blitzes. Most of what the Giants generated came off four-man rushes.
That's just a four-man attack, with Tuck beating his man to Smith's right. Smith rolled to his left to try to escape, but Pierre-Paul (leaping with his hand up) shed his block and combined with Tuck for the sack.
The 49ers had similar issues picking up the Giants' front later, this time because Kiwanuka stunted on the outside with Tuck. Again, as we saw when the Patriots tried to pick up the Giants' linemen, Tuck required the attention of two blockers. Of course, that left the door wide open for Kiwanuka to fly around the edge and come up with a takedown.
Back to that earlier Giants-Patriots matchup, and Grant's performance. In the photo below, Grant's boxed in yellow and, on the play pictured, wound up covering Gronkowski, who went in motion from Brady's right to his left just before the snap.
The Giants' four-man pass rush didn't come up with a lot of pressure on the play, but Brady still rushed his throw -- perhaps due to the early heat he'd received from New York.
Grant dropped and picked off the pass, which helps highlight why the Giants were able to pull off a win in New England. Not only does the New York pass rush have enough power to fluster Brady, but the Giants' back seven is talented enough to stay with the Patriots' weapons.
So, what's New England to do?
One of the easy answers is to vary its looks as much as the Giants change theirs. The Patriots did some of this in the earlier meeting between the teams -- not necessarily using anything out of left field, but at least employing some tactics to slow the pass rush.
The results are obvious: The Giants' pass rush generated absolutely no push, while the linebackers are all frozen because of the play-action motion.
The other way to beat the Giants' D-line is to use its strength against it. New York loves to get off the ball quickly and get into the backfield. The Patriots can counter that with some screens, draws or even quick passes to the outside.
But from a blocking standpoint, simply allowing the Giants to storm forward can work too, as you'll see below:
On that passing play Matt Light just guides Umenyiora where he's already headed. Brady stepped up and fired a completion over the middle.
New England also will use extra blockers when it senses a blitz, which would eliminate a couple of targets for Brady but also would help slow down New York's attack.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis has the orange line in front of him below -- he was not used as a receiver on this 2nd-and-10 shotgun set. Instead, he was responsible for picking up Boley on the blitz, which he accomplished. By doing that, he allowed Light to focus on his man to Brady's left, while the intertior of the line dealt with two pass rushers.
Boxed in yellow is Aaron Hernandez, who chipped Pierre-Paul before handing him off to Sebastian Vollmer and turning upfield. That's a popular tactic for dealing with the Giants' defensive ends -- holding a tight end back, at least for a split-second to help with the block.
How exactly the Patriots respond on Super Bowl Sunday will depend, to some extent, on what defensive variations the Giants use. New York's clever shifting and aggressive play worked in Week 9. If it's successful again this time around, it could shift the balance toward the Giants.