On the surface, Super Bowl XLVI looks like a close game, but eminently winnable (and ostensibly won) by the New York Giants over the New England Patriots. In the Week 9 game between these two teams, the Giants beat the Patriots, 24-20, despite the absence of their primary wideout (Hakeem Nicks) and their most explosive running back (Ahmad Bradshaw). Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin have been saying all week that Super Bowl XLII doesn't really factor into this game at all -- and they would be correct -- but the Week 9 game provides some very interesting clues as to how this game could go.
In the interest of going beyond the simple stats, we'll start with a few defensive adjustments the Patriots have made since that game -- and one they'd better make if they hope to win on Sunday.
Giants offense vs. Patriots defense
Eli Manning has been one of the best quarterbacks in the league with three-receiver sets through the 2011 season, but he wasn't successful at all out of that formation against the Patriots — per Football Outsiders' game-charting, Manning threw 22 passes with three receivers on the field and competed just eight for 109 yards. Victor Cruz (Manning's not-so-secret slot weapon) was the targeted receiver on seven of those passes, and he caught two for 30 yards. That's interesting, because the Giants ran more plays out of three-wide than any team in the NFL, and the Patriots were at their worst defensively against that formation.
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The Giants were scrambling because Nicks was out of the game, but it's the Patriots who will be scrambling if they don't run more defensive sets with extra DBs this time around. In the first half of Week 9, the Pats put five or six defensive backs on the field nine times when Manning threw a pass. Manning completed just three of those passes for 24 yards. The Pats didn't go nickel or dime at all in the second half, but they had a fairly decent reason. They lost two of their most important defensive players -- linebacker Brandon Spikes and safety Patrick Chung -- during that game.
Those injuries really affected New England's defense. Before he was hurt, Chung was often tasked to hover about 8-15 yards off the line at the hash and beat the crap out of any seam receiver who came into that area, which limited Manning's options to underrated tight end Jake Ballard. Spikes was part of a linebacker corps that was responsible not only for dealing with New York's inside rushing attack, but also for reading run and helping to compensate when their cornerbacks (especially Devin McCourty) bit on play-action -- and McCourty did that a lot. If McCourty is playing straight cornerback as opposed to the occasional safety role and he's lined up on Nicks, he'll have enough trouble with Nicks' quickness and dynamism without complicating things by going ass-over-teakettle every time Manning runs a play fake.
Both Nicks and Cruz finished in the top 10 in Football Outsiders' DYAR metric (their opponent adjusted, cumulative efficiency rating), but it's where they line up and match up best that should worry the Pats this time. With Nicks out, Cruz shuttled between wide and slot roles when his best spot is as a different sort of slot receiver. With his speed, Cruz isn't limited to the slants and crosses you see from most dedicated slot guys -- he can blast 30 yards up the seam and leave safeties eating his dust. Nicks' return has put Cruz back in that role with great impact.
Since those injuries happened in Week 9, we have a fairly decent snapshot of what they did to New England's pass defense -- New England ranked 24th in Pass Defense DVOA in Weeks 1-9, and dropped to 28th for the period of Weeks 10-17. There's been an uptick in the postseason, but the Tebow Factor is in effect to a degree. Bill Belichick will have to pull off the coaching job of his life to negate the Giants' passing attack.
The best way New England's defense was directed to work was to drive the outside receivers to the sideline, gain inside position, and force Manning to make stick throws 20-30 yards downfield into nearly impossible windows. The question is, how well can they do that with Nicks in the game AND Cruz in the slot? As Jerry Rice told me a couple days ago, putting do-it-all guy Julian Edelman on Cruz straight up in the nickel would be "death." Stretching a Patriots defense that's already near the breaking point from a personnel perspective is the end goal for Kevin Gilbride's offense.
Against the run, the Pats did fairly well with the Brandon Jacobs-led ground game, except for the third-quarter Jacobs touchdown in which defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth was absolutely crushed by left guard Chris Snee. That was Haynesworth's last game with the Patriots (it may, in fact, have been his last play), and the New England line is doing a bit better now -- especially defensive tackle Vince Wilfork.
In Week 9, the G-Men immediately double-teamed Wilfork as they didn't with any other man in the New England D-line rotation, and they managed to keep him at bay. But Wilfork has been playing at an entirely different level through the postseason, and the Giants' line may have to double-team AND chip Wilfork to keep him from upsetting the applecart.
Where the Pats are more vulnerable is outside the tackles, and that's where Bradshaw makes his money. According to FO's Defensive Adjusted Line Yards metric, the Pats were not good at all when trying to establish contain to the outside. If Bradshaw can bounce outside, especially against outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich, the Pats are in trouble.
So, that's the strategic shopping list for New England's defense: Play more diverse coverages through the game, force the running game inside, and find a way to stop Cruz. Easier said than done, but as we'll find out Sunday morning when we turn this around and look at the Patriots' offense vs. the Giants' defense, there are a few things Tom Brady might have in his toolbox.
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