INDIANAPOLIS — Most expect the Patriots to open up Super Bowl XLVI in their standard two-WR, two-TE, one-RB formation. Even with All-Pro TE Rob Gronkowski nursing a sore left ankle, the majority opinion is that he will give it a go Sunday night, as his presence alone on the field can cause matchup nightmares for opposing defenses. With QB Tom Brady firing off passes, the Patriots' offense can light up the scoreboard like few other units in the game.
To counter that formation, it's expected the Giants will feature a defensive lineup that uses three safeties. With Antrel Rolle, Kenny Phillips and Deon Grant, New York is well-equipped to slow down the Patriots' wide-open attack. The three players provide a combination of size, speed and strength, along with the versatility to play all over the field, depending on the situation. It is that adaptability that allows the Giants to show different looks on defense that will attempt to throw off Brady and his tight ends.
"You have a former cornerback, in terms of Antrel, who can go down and guard the receivers," Grant said Wednesday from the Giants' team hotel. "A guy like myself that did it all, played linebacker, played cornerback, played safety, strong and free. And a guy in Kenny who is young, can roam the field, come in the box and hit, can guard tight ends when we need to. And the good thing about the three of us is that all three of us have good speed and are strong."
When the Giants faced the Patriots in Week Nine, they allowed a big game to Gronkowski (8-101-1) while, for the most part, limiting fellow TE Aaron Hernandez (4-35-1).
Phillips said he isn't worrying about the pedigree of his opponents, thanks in large part to the fact that the Giants have seen them and other talents like them already this season.
"It's a big game; we're just going to go out and play ball," Phillips said. "We've been facing great tight ends this entire season — Vernon Davis, Jimmy Graham. So it's nothing new for us. They do have two great tight ends over there, but we have played them before. Give them credit, they are good athletes, but we're not too shabby on this end anyways."
The idea for the Giants to play three safeties at once came from former defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who would trot out Michael Johnson, James Butler and Gibril Wilson at once to complement speed rushers Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora.
Spagnuolo left the Giants following the 2008 season, but his philosophy lives on under Perry Fewell. Once again the Giants have a strong pass rush, but without strong pass coverage on the back end, the pressure on the QBs would be meaningless. That means the safeties have a lot of responsibility to defend pass catchers long enough for their front four to create havoc.
"It goes to the team; it's a team concept," safeties coach David Merritt said. "These boys understand that if they can give that defensive front an extra second or two seconds to get to the quarterback, it's going to help us all. These guys get it, and it has come together these last four or five weeks, which has been huge."
Of the three safeties, Grant — who is in his 12th NFL season — is the brain of the operation, while Phillips is the most physically intimidating (6-2, 217 pounds) in the open field. Rolle, however, is the spokesperson of the crew, and the one who came up with the team's nickname.
"We're the 'AK-47' group, that's our name," Rolle said. "You get Kenny, No. 21. You get Antrel, (No.) 26; that equals 47. And we all know an AK-47 doesn't work without a clip, and that's Deon Grant."
Come Sunday night, the three members of AK-47 will need to shoot down the threat that is the Patriots' TE tag team in order to win.
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