INDIANAPOLIS – As New York Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell switched time and again from one defense to the next, eventually confusing New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, a person with any sense of recent events would have called his moves the stuff of madness.
This is the same defense that just two months and a day earlier was torched at home against the Green Bay Packers in a three-point loss, the team's fourth consecutive defeat. Two weeks after that, the Giants' secondary looked bad in a loss to the Washington Redskins with a series of busted coverages.
Yet as the Giants limited Brady to only eight completions in his final 20 passes for 86 yards and an interception after he previously completed 16 consecutive throws, Fewell kept switching from man to zone to man again to something "we kept in our back pocket."
Exactly what those X's and O's were is irrelevant. What's important is how the Giants' secondary went from toasted to the toast of the NFL, helping keep Brady and the Patriots under control for a 21-17 victory in Super Bowl XLVI on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The simple answer is home study. The more complicated, psychobabble answer is that the Giants' cornerbacks and safeties learned to trust one another and, in turn, be able to tell Fewell what worked and what didn't.
"I have never had a unit go from that point to this point like this unit did," Fewell said after the Giants reeled off a sixth straight victory.
This was work. Aaron Ross and Corey Webster had been meeting most of the season at home to review game video, and they eventually were joined by Deon Grant, Kenny Phillips and Antrel Rolle. Then rookie Prince Amukamara showed up. Pretty soon, the entire unit was there going over play after play, trying to figure out what worked and, more important, what wasn't working.
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"We got tired of looking this bad, that's what it was about," Ross said. "We knew what the problems were. It wasn't that we couldn't play, but we were off by a little bit here or there. We weren't reacting to the situations and the calls the way we were supposed to and we needed to get that straight and we had to do it amongst ourselves."
The sessions went from one night a week to three or four. The players started bringing in food and drink. Ross' wife, Olympic gold medalist track star Sanya Richards, made turkey burgers. Webster brought in steak and lobster from Outback Steakhouse.
"That was close," Phillips said when asked who had the best grub. "Those turkey burgers were good."
More to the point was how close the players got.
"For me, it was really important to have the older guys tell me, 'You don't want to look like this,' " said Amukamara, who missed extensive time with a broken leg and was behind much of the season. "I was trying to get caught up on the defense and my technique and all of that work helped."
Said Ross: "It calmed everybody down. We had some moments when things weren't working and that allowed us to get closer, for the veterans to speak up. We had Antrel talking in the media at one point and other guys complaining, but we got it together by going over everything."
The situation was reminiscent of when former Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce called for extra meetings down the stretch of the 2007 season, when New York upset the undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl with another strong defensive effort.
The private gatherings helped turn around a defense that got torched for 131 points during a four-game losing streak toward the end of the regular season. During the season-ending win streak, New York gave up only 84 points, including just 56 in four playoff games.
For a time Sunday, Brady made the Giants look bad. He bridged halftime with a pair of touchdown drives that gave the Patriots a 17-9 lead with 11:20 remaining in the third quarter. Brady and the Patriots did a good job of getting the right personnel on the field to attack the Giants and then never allowing New York to substitute by using a hurry-up offense.
Eventually, however, the Giants settled down. They alternated between a press-man coverage and playing off the receivers. The defensive line, which had made a couple of crucial errors early in the game (such as Jason Pierre-Paul's failure to run straight up the field on New England's first touchdown, allowing Brady to step away from pressure and hit running back Danny Woodhead), finally pressured Brady.
In addition, Brady narrowly missed on two huge opportunities.
Up 17-15 with and 4:11 remaining in the game, New England had a second-and-11 play from the New York 44-yard line. The Giants had only one timeout remaining and the Patriots could have run the clock down to two minutes or less with another first down. As the Patriots came to the line, the Giants' defense was in a panic, trying to relay a different play call to the secondary.
The call didn't make it in. New England wide receiver Wes Welker got free in the left seam for what could have been a huge play. This would have been a dagger shot.
But Brady missed. His throw was high and a little behind Welker, who couldn't come down with it after a leaping attempt. On the next play, Brady was again just off the mark on a possible first-down throw to Deion Branch, forcing the Patriots to punt with 3:53 remaining.
When asked about those plays, Fewell shut his eyes in brief memory of the fear those moments caused, opened them and said: "God was smiling down on the Giants on those plays."
Divine intervention helps. And so does good old-fashioned homework.
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- Perry Fewell