GLENDALE, Ariz. – Michael Strahan noticed it during one of those countless film sessions. Amidst the continuous loop of Tom Brady's footwork – think: John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever – the New York Giants defensive end picked up something remarkably subtle.
While Brady's step count behind his offensive line remained the same in some games – maybe it was five steps back, or seven – he was purposely alternating the distance covered in each stride. Sometimes his five steps translated into five yards. Sometimes five steps translated into seven yards. And each adjustment in distance seemed to correlate to how an opposing pass rush was operating. It was the slightest nuance, and yet one of the things that has made Brady so difficult to pressure.
"That's one of those things that make him who he is," said Strahan, whose Giants take on the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII Sunday. "(As a pass rusher), you can't just pick an area in the backfield and expect him to be there, because he won't (be). When you beat your man, you're going to have to adjust and track him down in that split second, because he'll move around on you."
That's just one of many adjustments the Giants defensive line has been pondering this week. Facing a quarterback who threw 50 touchdown passes in the regular season and was rarely flustered, the Giants and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo have come to a predictable realization: If they don't get serious pressure on Brady, their chances of avoiding a repeat of their Week 17 loss is slim.
While only sacking Brady once in the season finale, the Giants did disrupt the Patriots quarterback in short bursts, hitting him eight times and coming close on several other occasions. But that didn't stop the Patriots from ringing up 38 points, or keep Brady from completing 76 percent of his passes for 356 yards. Making matters more difficult for New York, Brady will play this game with his full complement of starting linemen: left tackle Matt Light, left guard Logan Mankins and center Dan Koppen – all Pro Bowlers – and right-side starters Stephen Neal (guard) and Nick Kaczur (tackle). Neal and Kaczur missed the season finale with injuries.
"We got pressure (in the finale), but we could have always gotten more," Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora said. "Even though he was completing passes while he was getting hit, you can never hit a quarterback enough times. I think all of that has a cumulative effect on a quarterback. Even if we hit him eight times, maybe next time we'll go for hitting him 20 times and see if that has an effect on him. No matter what you do, you can't really rattle him that much. But we're never going to say pressure isn't the answer because it always is the answer."
And for the Giants in Super Bowl XLII, it's the No. 1 priority of the defensive line – far and away the strength that triggers the rest of the defense. Of all the battles that will unfold Sunday, this is a collision of opposing inertia. Brady has only been sacked 24 times in 18 games, and has never been sacked more than three times in a single outing. Meanwhile, the Giants come in boasting the league's best pass rushing alignment, to the tune of 53 regular-season sacks – 32 of which have come from Strahan (9), Umenyiora (13) and fellow defensive end Justin Tuck (10).
Not surprisingly, New York's pass rush has been the key to undoing the NFC's best quarterbacks in the postseason. The Giants sacked Jeff Garcia only once in their 24-14 wild-card win, but they also hit him 11 other times. New York sacked Tony Romo twice, but had him constantly on the run with blitzes in the second half of the Giants 21-17 win in the divisional round against the Cowboys. And while they didn't notch a single sack of Brett Favre in the 23-20 NFC championship win over Green Bay, the Giants kept him moving enough all afternoon to force an erratic passing game, and eventually, a decisive turnover in overtime.
All of that has translated into New England building its offensive game plan around the Giants defensive line, and the array of blitzes the Patriots suspect Spagnuolo is cooking up.
"The thing that Steve (Spagnuolo) really does a great job of is mixing everything up," Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. "You are never going to get one steady dose for too long in the course of the game. He is going to pressure (with blitzes) and make you defend that. He is going to make you beat zone coverage. He's going to play some man-to-man coverage. He's also going to max pressure you at times.
"He is going to make you have to handle all of that and execute against it in pressure situations. You never necessarily know what you're going to get – which is why you have to practice against everything, including the blitzes."
Ultimately, it may be the unconventional things that Spagnuolo draws up that could make the difference. Against the Cowboys' potent passing attack, he spent the second half utilizing his linebackers to bring pressure – something Romo failed to adequately handle. And while there is little indication of what packages will be introduced against New England, Brady suspects it will be a mixed bag of adjustments from the season finale. That will likely mean new defensive fronts, totally revamped pre-snap looks and different personnel packages. And it will certainly mean some unconventional pressure, likely from the secondary.
All of which are significant risks for the Giants, particularly given New England's penchant for burning teams with big plays when pressure doesn't pay immediate dividends. But the Giants have admitted they will have to gamble at times, much the same way Philadelphia, Baltimore and Miami did in Weeks 12, 13 and 16. Brady was sacked three times in each of those games, threw three of his eight interceptions on the season and lost one fumble.
"Nobody's going to rediscover any special defenses now," Spagnuolo said. "They've all been discovered. It comes down to picking what you want to do against them based on the players that you have. You don't want to put your players in any situation that they can't handle. They pose a lot of problems. They have tremendous weapons and now they've got their running game in gear. The receivers that they have all present different kinds of problems, they have deep threats, underneath threats. Of course, the guy pulling the trigger (Brady) as we all know is very special."
With an eye on getting maximum pressure, the Giants will likely go a great deal of time with their pass rushing package on the defensive line, which involves substituting defensive tackle Barry Cofield with Tuck. While New England will likely adjust by running at Tuck with running back Laurence Maroney, that would still take the ball out of Brady's hands. It's trading defensive balance and selling out to create pressure, but as the Giants saw first hand in their 38-35 loss to the Patriots in the finale, it's a necessary evil.
"Even if we don't sack him, we can't let them sit back and pick us apart," Tuck said. "We have to get pressure in their face. We have to knock (the ball) down. We have to keep Brady uneasy in the pocket. There were times where we hit him in that last game and he was still making great passes. It's going to be very hard to rattle him, but we can't allow him to sit back and look down the field with Randy Moss and Wes Welker and all of his weapons.
"If we don't get any pressure on him, we stand no chance."