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Giants' D prepping for 'chess match' against Patriots' tight ends

The Giants are well aware of the matchup problems that Rob Gronkowski presents. (Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS -- The improving health of Rob Gronkowski's ankle is, obviously, great news for the New England Patriots. It's a less joyous development for Jim Herrmann, the Giants' linebackers coach who, along with defensive coordinator Perry Fewell and the rest of New York's staff, is responsible for devising a game plan to stop Gronkowksi and Aaron Hernandez.

The Giants may have to go back to the drawing board, too, after allowing 136 yards and two touchdowns to that deadly Patriots duo back in Week 9.

"Normally, tight ends, you’d have one every once in a while where you’d have to put a safety on him," Herrmann said at Tuesday's Media Day. "Now, you’re seeing multiple tight ends able to get out of the box and go out like wide receivers.

"Defensively, you’re saying to yourself: 'How are we defending that? Do we want a linebacker out there, do you want to bring a safety down?' ... It’s a chess match."

San Francisco's Vernon Davis nearly pushed the Giants to checkmate in the NFC title game, catching three passes for 112 yards and two scores, both coming after he slipped deep behind a New York safety. Herrmann said that Davis shares a lot of similar traits with Gronkowski and Hernandez -- as well as Tony Gonzalez, Jimmy Graham and others -- and that those skills are "changing the game somewhat."

New York will attempt to rely on its depth against the Patriots' tight end threats. One tactic the Giants used in the first matchup between the teams this season was to pull a linebacker and put safety Deon Grant on Gronkowski.

It's possible they'll go that route again, at least in part. Just as the Giants have the versatility to mix and match their defensive looks, Gronkowski and Hernandez can be used in any number of ways within the New England offense.

"Gronkowski, he is pretty much a true tight end, but (Aaron) Hernandez comes in and they move him all over the field," Giants linebacker Michael Boley said. "The last couple of games, he even was put in the backfield and ran the ball, so things like that can propose a challenge as far as alignment and assignment and just different things that they can do to mix it up on you pretty well."

Antrel Rolle hinted that the Giants could alter their strategy from the last time around -- Rolle specifically said that New York's zone left some gaps for Wes Welker underneath. Cornerback Corey Webster agreed and added that the Giants have learned some lessons from that mid-season meeting.

"I think we did a great job of trying to self-scout ourselves. That’s not going to stop, that’s going to happen right up until game time," Webster said. "I have no idea what we’re going to play, zone or man. We’re not sure of it right now. I think we’ll have a great game plan to throw them off balance."

One thing does seem fairly certain: New York's linebackers will come at the Patriots' tight ends in waves.

"Michael (Boley) is such a versatile player; Jacquian (Williams) is a versatile player who can get out and do some things; Chase (Blackburn) is more of an in-the-box player, but he’s been around and knows how to use his head," Herrman said. "It’s a chess match with where we’re moving our pieces and they’re moving their pieces.

"It does, though, cause issues you have to deal with."

It's on Herrmann, Fewell and the rest of the Giants' defensive minds to figure out how.

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