13 Nov 2006
The Giants hosted the Bears with five of their defensive starters hurt, including All-Pro defensive end Michael Strahan, and three rookies in the defensive starting lineup. You might think that coordinator Tim Lewis would be more conservative with so many substitutes in the game. Quite the contrary: Lewis schemed aggressively to compensate for the loss of Strahan, Osi Umenyiora, and others with zone blitzes and blitzes from the secondary.
The Bears faced third-and-9 from their own 25-yard line on their opening drive of the first quarter. They lined up in a three-receiver set, with Thomas Jones as the lone back behind Rex Grossman. The Giants countered with their nickel package with R.W. McQuarters in the game in place of rookie linebacker Gerris Wilkinson. McQuarters was also on the field on the previous play; he blitzed from the nickel position, forcing a poor throw by Grossman. On this play, he shows blitz from the strong (offensive right) side, and linebacker Reggie Torbor also shows blitz from the strongside A-gap between the center and the guard.
The Giants' front four takes a wide alignment. Right end Fred Robbins lines up outside the left shoulder of left tackle John Tait. William Joseph, who spent much of the game playing end, covers the weakside A-gap as a defensive tackle. Rookie tackle Barry Cofield plays the 3-technique in the strongside B-gap. Mathias Kiwanuka is shaded to the inside shoulder of tight end Desmond Clark.
A split second before the snap, the Giants shift. Kiwanuka drops from the line, McQuarters and Torbor drop out of their blitz look, and deep safety Gibril Wilson, who was shaded to the right side of the offensive formation, rotates quickly to the left side. In that fraction of a second, the Giants reveal that they are running an overload blitz to the offensive right side. Unfortunately, the Bears don't have a pause button. Everything about the Giants formation and tendencies suggested a strong side blitz, and that's what the offensive line is prepared for.
At the snap, all three of the remaining Giants defensive linemen slant to their left. Kiwanuka drops into coverage in the flat zone. Joseph does an excellent job of forcing a double team by avoiding the block of Rueben Brown and crossing the face of center Olin Kreutz. Cofield occupies right tackle Fred Miller. Robbins starts straight up the field and works inside on Tait, demonstrating surprising quickness. Robbins easily beats Tait to the inside. It's a fine example of how a small thing like pre-snap alignment affects the outcome of a play. Robbins' wide alignment, coupled with Joseph's inside move to clear Brown, gave Robbins the space to beat a very good blocker.
Two Giants defenders blitz from the offensive left side behind the slanting linemen: linebacker Antonio Pierce and safety Will Demps. Both get a great jump at the snap: they are moving forward as soon as Grossman gets the ball, but they don't give away their intentions a second early as Kiwanuka did. Both defenders attack over Robbins' right shoulder, Pierce by looping from a point behind Joseph, Demps on a direct course from the secondary. Robbins, Pierce, and Joseph essentially execute a three-man stunt, and it works better than Coach Lewis could have hoped. With Robbins past Tate, there are three defenders coming free to Grossman's blind side. With two defenders blitzing to one side, it's clear why Wilson shifted before the snap. If Grossman looked right, he would see lots of open space where Pierce and Demps used to be. If a receiver crossed into that part of the field, Wilson would be the last line of defense to prevent a long gain.
Thomas Jones is Grossman's only remaining bodyguard. He cannot block Robbins, Pierce, and Demps by himself. He chooses Pierce. The cleverness of the play design is best illustrated by the fact that right guard Robert Garza blocks nobody for much of the play; he was assigned to either Torbor (if he blitzed) or Kiwanuka (if McQuarters blitzed). Grossman feels the heat and tries to throw to R. Davis along the right sideline. Unfortunately, he rushes the throw, and the pass sails right into the hands of Kiwanuka. Credit Kiwanuka, a rookie, with a heads-up play in coverage: many defensive ends look lost in flat coverage, but he takes a proper drop and puts himself in position to haul in an errant throw. Kiwanuka's long interception return sets up an easy touchdown run by Brandon Jacobs.
Lewis' schemes work because he has great depth and athleticism along the defensive line, and because defenders like Pierce, Joseph and Robbins understand their roles in the gameplan. Of course, his schemes work better when Strahan, Umenyiora, and others are available. In the second half of the game, the Bears began to adjust to Lewis' blitzes, and Grossman looked much better when he had time to throw. When Lewis gets his starters back, he'll probably rely a little less on the blitz. But he'll still use creativity to isolate his best defenders against one-on-one blocks, and he'll find ways to use weapons like Kiwanuka as pass rushers (or zone coverage decoys) off the bench.
Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?