Justin Tuck (91) was a constant presence in Super Bowl XLII. (Getty Images)
For Tom Brady in Super Bowl XLII four years ago, it was a Giant here, a Giant there, a Giants defender everywhere. New York's totally dominant defense was credited with five quarterback sacks and nine quarterback hits on Brady's 48 passing attempts, but it seemed that on just about every throw, Brady was hurried in the one way he didn't (and doesn't) like — right up the middle, and right in his face. That was the primary difference in the 17-14 final, and it's why many believe that defensive lineman Justin Tuck should have been the game's Most Valuable Player. Michael Strahan was just about unblockable in his final NFL game, and Osi Umenyiora held things up on the other end.
The rematch sees a Giants line with slightly different personnel, but the same effect on enemy passers — you're hitting the turf a lot, and you're not going to like it. Brady was confronted with those memories during his first media session after the Patriots arrived in Indianapolis, and he was ready with the usual compliments.
"We've played them plenty of times, and they can really get after the passer," Brady said. "It really starts with those guys up front. Justin Tuck and Osi, I've played against those guys a bunch. JPP [Jason Pierre-Paul], [Chris] Canty, [Dave] Tollefson, it seems whoever they put in there can get after the passer. Anytime you can limit the quarterback from the time it takes to make a read to make a throw, it's much more challenging. It comes down to quick decision-making."
New England's line was not ready for the challenge back then, but Brady likes the guys he has now — especially when you add in the hyper-effective blocking of tight end Rob Gronkowski.
"I put a lot of trust in my offensive line," Brady said. "It's a great group of players who have really played together for a while. Matt Light over there at my left tackle, there's no one I love having over there more than him. Logan [Mankins] and Dan Connolly have done a great job — we've had a few centers this year — Brian Waters came to our team this year and has done a remarkable job. [Nate] Solder and Sebastian [Vollmer] have done a great job at the right tackle position."
However, it was Gronkowski who may have been the key man when facing the Baltimore Ravens' furious pressure in the AFC championship game. Even after suffering a high ankle sprain, Gronkowski was an absolute force in pass protection, taking on Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata and winning more of those battles than he lost. The Giants don't blitz a lot — they brought five or more rushers just 13 times in the Week 9 contest between the two teams (per Football Outsiders' charting data), but Brady completed just three passes in 12 attempts against those blitzes, and was sacked once. It might almost be worth losing "Gronk" as a receiver at times, just to keep Brady upright and firing it downfield from a clean pocket.
The Giants also bring different personnel challenges, such as the scheme in which reserve end Dave Tollefson comes in, and Pierre-Paul might move inside. As they did in 2007, the Giants will show formations in which there are three and four defensive ends, and there's the new wrinkle of the "big nickel" package, New York's highly effective three-safety concept. Brady understands that he'll be looking at pressure from different angles on just about every snap.
"You look at the group they have now, and they have a ton of depth at the defensive line position," he said. "There were times this year when they weren't all out there as a group, but they're out there now and they're playing extremely hard. I think as a quarterback you understand that you can't sit there and hold the ball all day. You'd better find someone and get rid of it, because they're going to be coming. You don't want to sit back there and sort things out. Certainly I'm not going to be able to run away from them. I've gotta be able to throw the ball quickly and find the open guy, and get it into the hands of someone who can do something good with it like my skill players have done all season."
Patriots guard Logan Mankins agreed. "The thing that makes them unique is they have four guys out there at all times that can rush the passer. They're really good. Their tackles are good. At times they put four defensive ends at one time. They have the personnel to really get after you."
Head coach Bill Belichick, as is his wont, looked to bring things back to the present as opposed to looking back. "This game is about this team this year. There aren't really a lot of us coaches and players who were involved in that game, and very few players, in relative terms, between both teams. We are where we are now, and we're different than where we were earlier in the season. The Giants are where they are now, and I think they're different than where they were at different points of the season.
"To take it back years and years before that, I don't think it has too much bearing on anything. The team that wins Sunday will be the team that performs the best. That's what we are trying to strive our preparations for, is maximizing our performance on Sunday night. Nothing that's happened — wins, losses, anything other than it's a one-game season and a one-week preparation at this point. We are going to put all we have into this one. I don't think anything in the past has too much of a factor in this game."
True to a degree, but if the Pats don't find ways to deflect the pressure they know is coming, history could very well repeat itself.
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