Bill O'Brien will plot Tom Brady's game plan one more time in the Super Bowl before leaving the Pats to take over as Penn State's new coach. (AP)
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
Tuesday: Rob Gronkowski/Aaron Hernandez vs. Giants’ secondary
Wednesday: Ahmad Bradshaw/Hakeem Nicks vs. Patriots’ defense
Thursday: Giants' pass rush vs. Patriots' O-line
Tom Brady will be the first to tell you that he didn't play particularly well in New England's AFC championship game win over the Ravens. It's no secret that he'll have to be much better on Super Bowl Sunday.
But the Giants have thrown off Brady's rhythm in the past, including in their Week 9 win in Foxborough. Whether or not Brady can get into a groove may very well come down to the battle of wits between New England offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien and Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell.
How will that duo punch and counter-punch next Sunday? Here are a few things to look for, in the final pre-Super Bowl edition of "Break It Down."
We open with a set the Patriots used on multiple occasions vs. the Giants in Week 9 and sporadically throughout the year:
That's a six-man line with Brady under center. To get some extra protection, the Patriots moved Nate Solder (No. 77) out as an extra tackle in this scheme.
Brady faked a handoff to Danny Woodhead, then wound up scrambling through a huge hole for a few yards. While this formation essentially eliminates one of the Patriots' receiving options -- though, technically, Solder was eligible on the play -- it also provides Brady some extra time against New York's pass rush.
The Patriots went right back to this idea on their next play, sliding Solder to the opposite side of the line and inserting Rob Gronkowski on the right.
The Patriots probably would prefer not to do this, but it does serve its purpose -- both in getting Brady some more protection or adding an extra blocker on run plays.
Especially if Gronkowski is less than 100 percent, you can expect to see some of this in the Super Bowl. New York's pass rush is just too good for the Patriots to block with only five linemen all game. They'll have to do some different things to keep Brady upright.
And among those "different things" they might try is shifting their receiving threats around. We touched on this possibility some in Thursday's "Break It Down," but here's another example:
There, the Patriots had two wide receivers (Deion Branch and Wes Welker) to the left, tight end Aaron Hernandez to the right and motioned Gronkowski into the backfield, where you'd traditionally see a fullback.
The Patriots sent both Woodhead and Gronkowski out in patterns, leaving the five-man line to block the Giants' four pass rushers. New York won that head-to-head, generating a huge amount of pressure on Brady.
But by sliding Gronkowski into the backfield and delaying his release ever so slightly, New England kept its top receiving option available as a safety valve to Brady. The Pats' QB just dumped it off to Gronkowski for a solid gain.
Misdirection will be a key component in the Patriots' attack -- whether it's running draw plays, screens or simply utilizing some play-action fakes. New England put that final option into practice on the play pictured below.
Brady faked a handoff to Woodhead, freezing the Giants' linebackers for a split second. New England also, again, delayed Gronkowski's move downfield. He's boxed in yellow, staying home to defend against a late blitz.
Once the fake is executed -- and thanks to some strong blocking up front -- New England has tipped the scales in its favor. Gronkowski (boxed) finally releases out of the backfield and is more or less uncovered. Same goes for Woodhead, who sprints into the space vacated by the Giants' linebackers, who turned and bailed out downfield once they realized this was a passing play.
Brady made an easy toss to Woodhead for a nine-yard pickup. The Patriots don't need to go for home runs on every down against the Giants, especially if Gronkowski is hobbling. Taking what's there will be critical for Brady's success.
A couple more looks at what we might see from New England's offense and, in turn, New York's defense ...
Here's a pretty standard look for the Patriots: Basically a five-wide set, with Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez tight to the line on Brady's right. Notice how the Giants matched up on this play -- it's probably what you'll see again, should the Patriots utilize this formation.
It's man coverage everywhere, with two deep safeties and four rushing. The Giants can afford to do that, because (as pointed out a couple of photos above) their defensive line tends to cause some issues when it's a four-on-five scenario.
In this example, the Giants had a linebacker on both Gronkowski and Hernandez. The other option the Giants like to employ against the Patriots -- one discussed more in-depth in Thursday's "Break It Down" -- is to bring safety Deon Grant in as, essentially, an extra linebacker and pin him to Gronkowski.
They did this last week against the 49ers and Vernon Davis:
New York also tried to double-team Davis when it could. Here, Michael Boley dropped to support Grant deep.
The Giants will use those double-teams on Gronkowski if they need to, but ideally, they won't have to. Doing so leaves the rest of the cover guys even more exposed and also takes away Boley as a blitzing threat, a role he's thrived in during this postseason.
Back to the Patriots quickly: New England loves to run Welker and Branch to the same side of the field. Why? Well, it makes it difficult for a man-to-man defense to contend with both the deep pass and underneath routes.
Welker's in motion in the photo below, headed over near Branch:
Both receivers had those man-defense looks facing them here. Branch took off on a deep fly route, while Welker hesitated a bit and ran a short curl about eight yards downfield. With Branch helping to clear out the two cornerbacks in coverage, this turned into a pitch-and-catch for Brady and Welker.
The other thing New England might try to do to keep New York off-balance is run the football more than usual. It's a tall order against the Giants front, but going to shotgun and spreading the field could open up some room up the middle.
San Francisco did that, to some extent, last week.
On this Frank Gore run play, the Giants are in their usual man-to-man press coverage look outside, with Grant acting as that extra "linebacker" to help defend Davis. Gore took a handoff from Alex Smith and ran just off right guard.
The 49ers' offensive line created a nice push and the Grant-as-a-linebacker strategy backfired -- you can see him here (No. 34) not even in the fray yet as Gore's already three yards upfield before getting touched.
For all the different formations and plays New England will run, though, the Giants will have just as many defensive sets prepared. They've even gone so far as to drop Justin Tuck into zone coverage and rush three in recent weeks, another new twist.
A quick refresher from Thursday's "Break It Down" about a couple of different tactics the Giants take.
Grant (boxed in yellow) and Boley (orange) are two of the biggest keys to what the Giants do. Boley will switch from covering the middle of the field to blitzing often, making him a focal point for the Patriots' offensive line. Grant, meanwhile, will jump around as well -- he can blitz, but more often than not, he'll be responsible for Gronkowski.
And up front, the Giants like to stunt and twist their linemen on a regular basis. It worked on this play against the 49ers, with Mathias Kiwanuka slotting outside as Jason Pierre-Paul occupied two linemen inside.
The O'Brien vs. Fewell matchup will be a complete chess match. Can the Giants get in Brady's face and take away his favorite weapons downfield? Will the Patriots utilize their running backs and different formations to keep New York on its heels?
It should be fun finding out those answers on Super Bowl Sunday.