Super Bowl 46 is a rematch – not of Super Bowl 42, but of a game played in Week 9 of the 2011 season. That’s when the Giants last played the Patriots, beating New England 24-20. The game winner came in the final 20 seconds – Eli Manning to Jake Ballard in the back corner of the end zone.
In looking ahead to any matchup, it’s always instructive to analyze the most recent game between the two teams. It opens a window into individual matchups, and offers a strategic template for the next meeting.
Some quick bookkeeping is in order. Four important offensive players were inactive for the Giants: Ahmad Bradshaw, Hakeem Nicks, David Baas and Henry Hynoski. For the Patriots, Dane Fletcher and Shaun Ellis were missing from their defense (Note that Ellis only played 3 snaps against the Ravens in the AFC Championship game).
Against the Giants this year, the Patriots predominantly played a 4-3 front, with Brandon Spikes the middle linebacker, Jerod Mayo and Rob Ninkovich on the outside. Andre Carter – since lost to injury for the season — was healthy then; he played almost every snap at RDE. The nickel corner was Philip Adams; he was released 3 weeks after this game.
In Week 9, a couple of things stood out. One, the Patriots generated almost no pass rush with their 4 man DL. Manning was not sacked, and rarely pressured. Two, New England’s defense featured a number of well disguised double team and bracket concepts on Victor Cruz when he was aligned in the slot and outside. Was that a function of Nicks’ absence?
The Giants winning touchdown drive was fascinating. The most important play was a 28 yard seam completion to Ballard on third and 10. It was Manning at his best: a stick throw into a small window in a critical situation, the kind of throw that separates quarterbacks in the NFL. The coverage defender was Tracy White. What was interesting was White had not played in the nickel sub-package all game until the final drive.
Neither had safety Sergio Brown. It was his pass interference penalty against Cruz that put the ball on the Patriots 1 yard line with 30 seconds remaining. Watching the tape that week, I was curious as to why White and Brown were in the game at that point, after not playing the first 58½ minutes.
From my perspective, the more intriguing matchup was on the other side of the ball. The Patriots played 18 snaps with 6 offensive linemen, and 2 with 7 offensive linemen. They did not play many snaps of empty, or no huddle. My sense was New England was primarily concerned about the Giants pass rush. The personnel and the tight formations placed a premium on protection.
The Patriots were not productive on 3rd down; 5-15 overall but the pass plays were most telling. Tom Brady had 11 3rd down drop backs. He was only 3-9 with 2 conversions, and was sacked twice. It was a poor 3rd down performance.
In addition, the Giants blitz schemes gave the Patriots problems. Brady was just 6-15 versus New York’s pressure, surprisingly inefficient given that in 2011 he had the AFC’s best passer rating (110.9) versus blitz.
What jumped out on film was the Giants willingness to match up man-to-man. They were challenging and proactive in their coverage concepts. They predominantly played with 3 safeties: Antrel Rolle, Deon Grant and Kenny Phillips. It was their foundation personnel package. The Giants clearly felt comfortable matching Rolle on Wes Welker, and any safety on Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. At times they matched linebacker Jacquian Williams on the tight ends.
While Welker and Gronkowski each had more than 100 receiving yards, it did not feel watching the tape that either was dominant. Remember, too, that Brady dropped back to pass 51 times. When that happens, receivers are bound to compile numbers.
Overall, Brady was not sharp either mentally or physically; he was inaccurate on some routine throws and a little late with his timing on some others that were there. A great example was a deep post throw to Chad Ochocinco in the third quarter. Ochocinco ran by Corey Webster. I know Brady was waiting for deep safety Phillips to declare on Welker’s crossing route but he pulled the trigger a couple of beats late. A shot play missed.
All matchups between good teams are tactically captivating. The Week 9 Giants/Patriots game was no different. You can be certain both the New England and New York coaching staffs will study it carefully in preparation for Super Bowl 46.