INDIANAPOLIS - Not that he sleeps much anyway, but Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia has spent many a waking hour the past two weeks trying to devise a strategy that can hopefully slow the defensive strength of the Giants.
The plan - and, much more importantly, how well the Patriots execute it - could determine which team wins Super Bowl XLVI tomorrow. New England couldn’t solve the Giants’ pass rush four years ago, perhaps the main reason the Patriots’ quest for a perfect season dried up in the Arizona desert.
Some of the pieces on both sides have changed since then, but the plotline remains the same: If the Patriots can’t keep New York’s defense off quarterback Tom Brady, their chance at victory diminishes greatly. Pressure? Because the Giants are so skilled at bringing it, the Patriots’ offensive line finds itself once again under it.
“It’s always on the line. When’s that ever been different?’’ Scarnecchia said. “The offensive line’s job is to throw up a wall in front of a quarterback, between the rush guys and him, and give him as much time and comfort in the pocket where he can see what he’s got to see, step up, and throw the ball.
“They have an exceptional group, everyone knows that. It’s one of their strengths, that they can rush four and get pressure. So that’s the cross we’ve got to bear, and we’re not going to hide from it. We’re going to go out and do our best.’’
Scarnecchia loves his line, and has pointed out this week that the Patriots have a talented combination of multiple Pro Bowlers and first- and second-round draft picks in Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Brian Waters, Sebastian Vollmer, and Nate Solder. Center Dan Connolly went undrafted.
But the challenge facing that unit is just as daunting as it was four years ago, when the Giants sacked Brady five times in Super Bowl XLII and pressured him countless others. These Giants counter with Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, Chris Canty, Linval Joseph, and rookie Jason Pierre-Paul up front. The five combined for 36 1/2 of the team’s 48 regular-season sacks - tied for third most in the league - with Pierre-Paul getting 16 1/2.
Blessed with size, the Giants’ defensive front excels because of its strength and speed. Not many teams can send out four defensive ends simultaneously - the Giants call it their NASCAR package - one of many looks the Giants use. Like most teams, they’ll also play their defensive linemen in various spots, taking advantage of their versatility.
“The key with these guys is knowing who’s lined up against you and reading your keys to what pressures they can bring from that,’’ said Mankins, the Patriots’ starting left guard. “You’ve got to know each one of these guys’ strengths because they all have a different one.’’
Only Tuck and Umenyiora were with the Giants in 2007, but the goal remains the same: Get to Brady, and if that fails, at least make him aware of their proximity.
“It always starts with making sure he’s uncomfortable in the pocket,’’ said Tuck. “You’ve got to hit [quarterbacks]. You can’t let them stand up and look downfield all game, especially when you have someone as good as Tom.’’
According to Pierre-Paul, Brady felt the Giants’ pass rush throughout the Giants’ 24-20 win in Foxborough Nov. 6, even though the pressure they’re capable of producing wasn’t really there.
“When we played them, it’s like he felt us,’’ Pierre-Paul said. “When we looked back on the film, we really didn’t rush like we can rush as a defense. He was throwing balls on the ground and stuff.’’
Was Brady, usually calm and in control in the pocket, reacting to phantom pressure?
“He was. He did react to pressure that didn’t exist, and he was just throwing the ball places where there wasn’t even a receiver there,’’ Pierre-Paul said. “Imagine us getting there even faster and actually doing our jobs and getting hits on him.’’
To counter the Giants’ pass rush, there are adjustments the Patriots can make offensively. The Giants’ line seems to think they already know what they’ll be.
“They’re going to definitely do some things to keep us off him: max protections, short throws, quick throws. But they can only do that for so long,’’ said Umenyiora, who played in only nine regular-season games because of injury, but was second on the team with nine sacks. “Whenever we have opportunities where he does hold the ball, we’re going to have to get to the quarterback.’’
The focus when the Patriots have the ball, then - since they’re so pass-oriented - is how much the offensive line can neutralize the Giants’ pass rushers, and whether Brady can be given enough time to comfortably run the offense.
It certainly won’t be an easy task. But this is the Super Bowl; nothing about it is meant to be easy.
“It wouldn’t be the Super Bowl if they weren’t talking about coming to knock me down and trying to knock me out. That’s what I expect,’’ Brady said. “You know what? Our offensive line gets paid to keep those guys out of there.
“This team has a very good pass rush. I’ve seen it game after game this year. They can get to the quarterback. They can force the quarterback into some bad decisions and some bad throws.
“We’re going to try to eliminate those. We really can’t afford too many of those. We had too many of those the last time we played them, and we’re not going to be able to win the game making mistakes.’’