Super Bowl 2012: Outcome could hinge on Giants' pass rushers vs. Patriots' blockers

February 2, 2012

— The New York Giants have revved up their pass rush again, just as they did four years ago en route to their stunning Super Bowl upset of the then-unbeaten New England Patriots.

The members of the Patriots’ offensive line have listened all week to questions about their failure to protect New England quarterback Tom Brady from the Giants’ hard-charging defensive linemen in that memorable 2008 game, and about their prospects for improving this year.

Both sides seem to believe the outcome of Sunday’s game at Lucas Oil Stadium could hinge on whether Brady’s blockers are able to keep him on his feet long enough to scan the field for open receivers.

“Our job is to block them,” Patriots guard Logan Mankins said. “And if we do that, we have a good chance to win. We know it’s going to be tough to block them so we need to have our best game out there.”

Few defenses chase opposing quarterbacks as relentlessly as the Giants. Their 2007-08 title was attributable in large part to the ferocity of their pass rush. They led the league with 53 regular season sacks, and they took down Brady five more times in the Super Bowl.

The current Giants tied for third in the league during the regular season with 48 sacks. The Giants added nine sacks in three games during the NFC playoffs. Now their primary pass rushers — Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck — are set to renew their pursuit of Brady.

“We’ve just got to get to him,” Pierre-Paul said. “And going into this game, we know what’s at stake and we’ve got to get there fast enough.”

The participants in this matchup have changed a bit since the teams’ last Super Bowl meeting. Mankins and left tackle Matt Light started that Super Bowl for the Patriots, but the other three starters Sunday will be new. Tuck and Umenyiora played in that Super Bowl for the Giants, but defensive end Michael Strahan has since retired and been replaced by Pierre-Paul.

“It seems like whoever they put in there can get after the passer,” Brady said this week. “Any time you can limit the quarterback, from the time it takes to make a read to make a throw, it’s much more challenging. It comes down to quick decision-making. I put a lot of trust in my offensive line. It’s a great group of players who have really played together for a while.”

Brady said the burden falls on him as well. “I think as a quarterback you understand that you can’t sit there and hold the ball all day,” he said.

The Patriots allowed 32 sacks during the regular season, tying them for the league’s ninth-lowest total. Brady was sacked only once in two AFC playoff games.

Veteran right guard Brian Waters, a Pro Bowl fixture with the Kansas City Chiefs, was signed before the season. Rookie Nate Solder, a first-round draft choice in April out of Colorado, became a starter by necessity with right tackle Sebastian Vollmer plagued by injuries. Vollmer hasn’t played since late November but has practiced this week and might play Sunday.

“The offensive line’s been great all year,” Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis said. “We’ve had different tackles in there. Guards, centers — all those guys work well together and they’re a tight-knit bunch. I think that’s what kind of makes them who they are. They care about each other and they work well together.”

Pierre-Paul is the new leader of the Giants’ pass rush. He ranked fourth in the league with 161 / 2 sacks during the regular season and is a contender for the NFL defensive player of the year award. The Giants’ defense struggled during the regular season but has played dramatically better, led by the pass rush, during the postseason.

“We’ve been a little healthier,” Tuck said this week. “We have played more games with each other. [Pierre-Paul] has had a great year all year long. Me and Osi have battled with injuries and never really got in sync, I guess.”

The Giants at times put Pierre-Paul, Umenyiora, Tuck and outside linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka, a converted defensive end, on the field together.

“They have four guys out there at all times that can rush the passer,” Mankins said early in the week. “They’re really good . . . At times they put four defensive ends at one time. They have the personnel to really get after you.”

There has been some verbal back-and-forth between the Giants’ pass rushers and the Patriots’ offensive linemen since this game was set. Tuck was quoted accusing the New England blockers of dirty play. Mankins said after arriving in Indianapolis that the Patriots took that as a compliment.

Umenyiora said that Light has a way of getting under his skin. Light, who was sick early in the week but was practicing fully by midweek, said he didn’t consider his on-field rivalry with Umenyiora any more intense than his battles with other opponents.

Even as they acknowledge Brady’s greatness as a quarterback, the Giants talk about their hope to rattle him, a goal not often expressed so openly when readying to play the three-time Super Bowl winner.

“I think it starts with hitting him, even when you don’t actually get sacks, just keeping people around him so he can’t step up” in the pocket, Tuck said.

By game time Sunday, all that will matter is whether the Patriots will be able to keep the Giants from harassing Brady into another Super Bowl misadventure.

“That’s going to be one of the keys to the game,” Waters said, “and that’s something that the linemen take to heart.”

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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