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?
23 Jan 2008
by Bill Barnwell
Certainly, the Giants team that has won out in the playoffs on its way to next Sunday's Super Bowl bears little resemblance to the team that stumbled its way through an uneven regular season. New York had one constant throughout its season, though: Its excellent pass rush, which sacked quarterbacks on 9.78 percent of all dropbacks through Week 16, a staggering number.
If I told you that the Giants would make the Super Bowl at that juncture of the season, you'd obviously imagine that their defining characteristic, their awesome pass rush, would maintain or even improve upon that performance. Instead, the Giants have done nothing of the sort.
In the Week 17 loss to the Patriots and three playoff games since then, quarterbacks have dropped back 156 times against the Giants. They've been sacked four -- four -- times. That's an anemic 2.56 percent.
Granted, the Giants have played some pretty effective offensive lines in that time. By Adjusted Sack Rate, they played the first, fourth, seventh, and 24th-ranked lines in the league, but a drop that precipitous is very strange for this defense, which has protected a somewhat cushy secondary all season.
It's even stranger that the aforementioned secondary has tightened up to the point where they look not only competent, but effective in recent weeks, even without Sam Madison at 100 percent, but that's what has happened. Of course, while the secondary has been lucky to face the offenses of Tampa Bay and Dallas while they were struggling with injuries, they'll be with no such luck against New England (assuming Tom Brady's foot issue is a minor one). It's a specific matchup in the secondary that represents the first in a series of matchups I think will define the game.
Assuming that Madison has recovered back to around 100 percent for the Super Bowl, he'll likely draw the role of matching up one-on-one versus Randy Moss, as Madison takes most of the snaps versus the opposition's No. 1 wideout. If Madison isn't ready, Corey Webster would take that role, which would be terrifying.
Webster could also theoretically play as the nickelback and line up against Welker in the slot, but it doesn't fit his skill set -- Webster is quick, but he doesn't have great technique and he's an awful tackler. That's exactly the kind of player Welker eats up. If the Giants harbor any delusions of covering Welker with one of their linebackers, well, he'll be Super Bowl MVP. Welker caught 11 passes for 122 passes in the first game between these two teams.
That leaves McQuarters, who's actually a very good fit for covering Welker. The Giants' ideal plan is to stay in the nickel most of the time, playing a 4-2-5, allowing them to keep their best defensive linemen on the field while matching up against the Patriots' core three- and four-WR sets. McQuarters is still fast and agile, and while he's never been a player with great technique, he's a good corner against slot receivers and a stout defender in run support. The Giants ranked ninth in the league against No. 3 and deeper wideouts this year, and McQuarters had a good portion to do with that. He's the Giants' best bet for singling Welker throughout the game.
Kaczur was better in the first half of the season, but as the season has gone along, he's regressed back to his previous role as the weak link of the Patriots offense, if not the entire team. It's not that Kaczur has one obvious weakness, but instead that he's just limited at tackle. He can occasionally be duped with a twist, and while he's a big lineman, faster ends can get around him. He's also a better run blocker than a pass blocker, which provides opportunities for both Strahan and Tuck to get at Brady. Both Giants linemen are superior athletes to Kaczur, with an assortment of moves that should cause him problems.
The issue here is not necessarily simply that Kaczur will get Justice'd, but instead that if Kaczur struggles, the Patriots will need to start using more two-tight end sets with Kyle Brady or shifting their protection towards the right side of the line, allowing Osi Umenyiora the chance to come in on the left.
How did Kaczur handle the Giants in Week 17? He didn't: he was out, replaced by backup Ryan O'Callaghan. So this is one matchup we haven't seen yet on the field.
In my chat on Baseball Prospectus last week, I threw out my All-Pro offensive line for the season. The right guard on that line was Snee, who's graduated from being Tom Coughlin nepotista into one of the finest guards in football. Time after time in breaking down Giants games, I saw Snee stagger a defensive lineman or get to the second level and waste a linebacker or safety. Snee's job here, along with center Shaun O'Hara and right tackle Kareem McKenzie, is going to be to handle the combination of Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren, depending upon how the Giants decide to double-team players on the line. I suspect that Wilfork, who's had the best season of the three, will get the most attention, but Snee might be good enough to handle Wilfork single-handedly. Either way, expect a majority of the Giants running plays to go behind Snee and McKenzie.
Burress didn't dominate the Patriots in Week 17 like he did Al Harris and the Packers last week, but he did score twice. Having two weeks off to rest his ankle can only help, and if Burress is even close to 100 percent, he represents something the Patriots might struggle to account for: height. Samuel is 5-10, while Ellis Hobbs is 5-9. You'd have to figure that the Patriots will try and make Amani Toomer and Steve Smith beat them by doubling Burress on virtually every play, with Samuel playing underneath coverage inside against the slant, and probably James Sanders up top shadowing the deeper throws. In what could very likely be his last game in a Patriots uniform, Samuel's got a big load to carry on the defense.
Yeah, I couldn't work Hole in Zone into the preview, sorry. This is the closest thing. Bradshaw actually reminds me a lot of the way Laurence Maroney looked at the beginning of his rookie season -- this absurdly quick rookie who made cuts that cause you to gasp out loud combined with the occasional bursts of vision that makes those cuts so scary. What makes Maroney more valuable is that he can do those cuts at 5-11, 220 pounds, as opposed to 5-9, 198, but that doesn't mean Bradshaw can't be valuable. If he actually gets out in the passing game, he could give the Patriots linebackers fits in coverage.
On the other hand, he shares a problem with Maroney: He's not an asset as a pass blocker, at least not yet. Unlike Maroney, Bradshaw usually knows where he needs to be, but because of his size and inexperience, he doesn't have the ability to do much more than wave his arms and attempt to distract an oncoming rusher. Keep in mind that if Bradshaw has to pick up, say, Mike Vrabel on a blitz, he'll be giving up 60 pounds. The only thing that can make that work is great technique, and Bradshaw simply doesn't have that yet. That's going to limit his ability to stay in the field on passing downs, which is a problem for the Giants, as it's exactly when Bradshaw could do the most damage. If there was ever a spot the Giants wished they could have Tiki Barber back, third-down back would be the place.
When our weekly prop bet column comes out next week, one of the things I'll be betting heavily on is a Hobbs kickoff return for a touchdown. The Patriots kickoff returns were worth 11 points above average on the season, fifth-best in the league, while the Giants' kickoffs was worth -6 points, "good" for 26th.
That's not exactly a guaranteed touchdown by any means, but it is more likely than the Giants getting a repeat touchdown from Domenick Hixon while Patriots distance machine Stephen Gostkowski is enjoying the thin Arizona air. The kickoff issue is likely to rear its head is with short fields for the Patriots, and with Hobbs' abilities as a return man, it's not unreasonable to take a chance on one going to the house -- with the right odds, of course. That will have to wait until next week, though.
|Check out the Football Outsiders comics archive and Jason's wacky Gil Thorp blog.|
It represents a testament to the brilliance of Jason Beattie that our resident cartoonist can lead the Playoff Fantasy Draft with 170 points despite top pick Randy Moss mustering all of three points through two weeks, with one of his two points last week coming on a reverse. On the other hand, this playoff draft says little good about me, so I'll stop talking about it.
|2008 Football Outsiders Playoff Fantasy Teams|
A wild card team in the Super Bowl always means the Best of the Rest teams do well, and unless shenanigans happen, we already have ourselves a winner. Reader "mrh" has a whopping 164 points -- yes, better than five of the Outsiders -- with seven players remaining: Eli Manning, Kevin Faulk, Donte' Stallworth, Amani Toomer, Kevin Boss, Lawrence Tynes, and the New York defense. While "Sean D" is close with 162 points, his only remaining players -- Faulk and Stallworth -- are also on mrh's roster.
The only one left with a chance of catching mrh would be "Mitch," but as he has only Ahmad Bradshaw and Faulk left, Bradshaw would need to outscore mrh's whole team by 13 points in order for Mitch to take home the trophy.
I started to write the Lawrence Tynes entry after regulation in Green Bay, but I'll grant Tynes a stay of execution for his mammoth 47-yarder to win it. Instead, KCW goes to Al Harris, who spent the game being abused by Plaxico Burress before the Packers finally took Harris off the gigantic Giants wideout. Harris said this week that he "... lost [his] individual battle" against Burress, which is an understatement of epic proportions.
36 comments, Last at 07 Feb 2008, 7:55pm by george