Giants' safeties know their value
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.
— Eli Kaberon
Coordinators hold power to script opening plays
Bill O'Brien and Kevin Gilbride have spent their careers coaching to be a part of games such as this. It's their livelihood to come up with offensive game plans. Sunday's scripts will be two of the offensive coordinators' biggest plans ever.
And yet there are only so many plays they can cram into the script. After they come up with the first few series' worth of offensive plays, it's chaos after that. All the calls come off the cuff from that point on.
The Patriots, O'Brien said, typically plan what they call "openers," not restricted to a first 15 plays as other teams do it. And it's all hands on deck: O'Brien consults with OL coach Dante Scarnecchia, who talks with head coach Bill Belichick, who checks with Tom Brady, who talks with O'Brien. Again and again and again, throughout the week.
"Here in New England it's an ongoing process right up until kickoff. Tommy and I spend a lot of time together. He's sick of me, and I am sick of him," O'Brien said with a laugh and a wink. "But it's really good communication with the offensive staff. We're well on the way, but I would say we really could use these next 3-4 days.
"You've got a guy who has been playing quarterback for 12 years. It's not like it's a rookie quarterback. He's a big part of the process."
Gilbride is a little more traditional in his approach. Call it old-fashioned if you will, but he likes to have a first 15 plays in mind, and it's the way many other coordinators approach a game.
"I think it's fairly common," he said. "Most guys start the game with a preplanned idea. We'll do a couple of different formations, a couple of different personnel groupings to try to get a sense of what (the Patriots) are trying to do.
"You try to accomplish two goals: one, get in the endzone, but two, try to see what their adjustments are going to be to certain personnel groupings or this motion, whatever you are trying to see. And of course, you're running something (early) to try to maybe set them up for something different later in the game."
For instance, a split end running an out route out of a certain personnel package and formation could then run an out-and-go out of the same personnel setup, to prevent the cornerback from squatting on the route and to try to hit him for a big play up top. Likewise, a run play out of another formation could end up later being play-action. And vice versa.
It's the game within the game, the minutiae that coordinators dissect until they are blue in the face. But of course, things rarely go as planned when the game starts. O'Brien and Gilbride are ready for that, too, and are not afraid to go off the script if the situation warrants it.
"We definitely do," Gilbride said. "You keep your third down (plays) separate. Let's say you get a great kick return, or even a penalty and you're backed up inside the 10-yard line, which is more common. Then we'd go to either our 'backed-up' offense or our red-zone offense."
O'Brien is ready to scrap his openers list, depending on what happens on special teams.
"I can remember in 2009 — I forget the game, but we kicked off, the other team fumbled it and we got the ball (to start the game) on the six-yard line," he said. "You're not calling your openers at that point. You have to be prepared for every weird situation like that."
Of course, there is another side of the coin: the players. When the game plan is released — this week it will be Saturday for the Giants — the first thing the skill-position players do is look through it to find out where they might be featured. Giants RB Ahmad Bradshaw says he gets with Brandon Jacobs and picks through the plays to find out where they are involved.
"That's what any running back does," Bradshaw said. "You want more running than passing naturally."
Bradshaw said he has mentioned to Gilbride in the past that he is ready and willing to take the ball earlier in games.
"Earlier in the season we got on him a little about how he passes it all the time (early in games)," Bradshaw said, laughing. "So he switched it up and started with one run to start the game. Then it was right back to the pass."
The Patriots often come out to start games in the no-huddle offense, and sometimes that means a rhythm passing game with few run plays installed. For a running back such as Stevan Ridley, he might have five straight run plays called early — or he might not even be dressed for the game. Everything the Patriots do offensively is game-plan-specific, aimed at attacking the weakness of the opponent.
"It's how things are run around here," Ridley said. "It's called being a fluent offense. When they call your number, you have to be ready to make a play. You never know when you might get it again."
— Eric Edholm
Jack-of-all-trades Edelman invaluable to Patriots
Few Patriots spend more time in their playbook than WR Julian Edelman. Well, in the case of Edelman, make that "playbooks" — plural.
New England's third-year wide receiver, a converted option quarterback at Kent State, is a throwback player. He does whatever head coach Bill Belichick asks — whether it be catching passes from QB Tom Brady, playing bump-and-run coverage as a slot cornerback, returning punts or chasing down opposing returners.
It's no wonder Patriots DB coach Josh Boyer said on Wednesday that Edelman is consistently one of the first players at the facility and one of the last to leave.
"It's just like school; you just have to study," said Edelman of his constant back-and-forth between different meeting rooms and discussions with different coaches. "You have to take the extra time to look at each phase of the game, and that's our job — our job is to prepare and try to execute what the coaches give us. And by doing that, I have to study a little harder, so that's what I do."
On a star-studded offense, playing behind arguably the best slot receiver in the game in Wes Welker, Edelman can easily get lost in the mix. He caught just four passes during the regular season. So he jumps at every opportunity to get on the field, no matter what type of grunt work is required.
In the AFC championship game, he found himself matched up late in the game one-on-one against former Pro Bowl WR Anquan Boldin. While Boldin helped move the Ravens quickly downfield, grabbing four balls for 60 yards, Boyer preferred to discuss Edelman's forced fumble on Boldin's final catch. Baltimore recovered, but Edelman prevented Boldin from getting the first down, and two plays later, PK Billy Cundiff missed a chip shot, sending the Patriots to Indianapolis.
That physicality is part of what allows Edelman to contribute on defense. "One of the things with Julian — and this was very evident on offense — he is a pretty good blocker on run plays. He is physical, isn't afraid to get in there. He'd been used on special teams, coverage teams; he'd been in tackling drills, so that wasn't that big of a concern. We thought he was a very capable tackler; he is not afraid to get hands on guys when he is up at the line of scrimmage."
While Welker is the game's top slot receiver, Edelman will loom large in the Super Bowl, trying to slow down perhaps the NFL's No. 2 slot receiver, emerging star Victor Cruz.
"He not only plays in the slot, he plays outside, he's explosive, he has great short-area quickness," said Edelman when asked about his difficult assignment. "He sets up his routes really well. He's definitely a great player, and we are going to have to prepare hard for him.
Time will soon tell if Edelman can help slow down Cruz. One thing is assured: Preparing hard won't be an issue.
— Arthur Arkush
Giants' special teams have shined in postseason
With the Giants and Packers deadlocked at 20 late in the 2007 NFC championship game, Giants PK Lawrence Tynes twice misfired on potential game-winning field goals from 42 and 35 yards out in the waning minutes. The teams advanced to overtime, where Tynes redeemed himself by drilling a 47-yarder to send New York to Super Bowl XLII. The rest of the story is history.
Fast-forward four years. Giants and Niners, tied at 17 in overtime of the NFC championship game. Again, Tynes drills a game-winning field goal, this time from 31 yards out, to advance the Giants to a meeting with the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI.
It is (unusual) — it's very rare," said Tynes of the eerie coincidence. "To have one, even, and to have two; yeah, a little bit déjà vu. But to have the chance to do it twice is pretty cool."
The difference this time around is that Tynes didn't need to redeem himself; he was a perfect 2-of-2 in San Francisco and 6-of-8 in New York's improbable postseason run.
Oftentimes, in the postseason, execution on special teams can be the X-factor in deciding close games. That was certainly the case against the Niners, when Tynes was perfect and 49ers WR Kyle Williams was far from it, muffing a pair of punts that likely cost his club a trip to the Super Bowl. New York's entire special-teams performance was tremendous, with P Steve Weatherford (12 punts for 46.4 average and 40.6 net, two inside 20) outdoing Pro Football Weekly/Professional Football Weekly Writers of America Golden Toe co-winner Andy Lee, and Giants WR Devin Thomas and rookie LB Jacquian Williams coming up with critical plays on special teams.
In the case of Weatherford, whose Super Bowl bids with the Jets the past two seasons have come up just short, being able to help the Giants get over the hump this year has been a dream come true.
"I'm not throwing the game-winning TD, but if you can hem up a returner and really change field position for your defense, that is obviously going to help you win games. So, yeah, it feels great," said Weatherford.
The Giants' ensuing battle against New England on Sunday is expected to be a tight affair, exactly the kind of game where strong special-teams play is critical.
The Giants' special-teams captain, LS Zak DeOssie, a ballboy for Tom Brady and the Patriots in high school, feels good about the way his unit is firing on all cylinders at the right time.
"We just keep on chugging away and focus on what we do and sort of block out the whole hype and perform like we have been," said DeOssie.
What about having the only kicker in NFL history to twice send his team to the Super Bowl with game-winning boots in overtime on his side?
"Nerves of steel ... I've always thought Lawrence was one of the best kickers in the NFL, and when the game is on the line, who would you want there kicking the ball? Lawrence is certainly at the top of the list."
— Arthur Arkush
Gronkowski misses Wednesday's practice
While Patriots OT Matt Light was back in practice after a brief bout with illness, TE Rob Gronkowski remained on the sideline Wednesday with a high left ankle sprain, according to NFL.com's Steve Wyche.
Gronkowski was injured in New England's win over Baltimore in the AFC championship game and is a pivotal part of the Patriots' attack, having led the team with 17 touchdown receptions in 2011.
"I feel better every day, and that's the goal," Gronkowski said. "That's the positive direction. You want to be moving forward every single day. If you're moving backwards, that's not good at all. The rehab is going well, and we're on pace."
Meanwhile, 10 Patriots players were listed as limited participants in practice, including S Patrick Chung (knee), LB Brandon Spikes (knee) and WR Wes Welker (knee).
— PFW staff
Coughlin believes Gronkowski will play
A day after enduring the Media Day crush of questions on Tuesday, Giants head coach Tom Coughlin stepped back to the podium on Wednesday morning to take on another series of inquiries from reporters. But he couldn't understand why he was doing so.
"I don't know how any of you could have a question after yesterday. Unbelievable," joked Coughlin. "I was OK until that guy came over in the — I don't know, what was that? — Adventureman suit he had on. And the other guy who had the number and leather helmet. Actually, that guy looked pretty good in that helmet. That was a little shaky."
Coughlin was referring to a pair of media members who dressed in costume while participating in the annual pre-Super Bowl Q&A with players and coaches that is often dominated by entertainment outlets rather than sports reporters.
Clearly, Coughlin has tired of answering the same questions over and over. Before opening the room up to questions, he jokingly warned: "There cannot be a redundant question today."
The warning was not heeded, however. Question No. 3 of the session was about Chase Blackburn, the Giants' linebacker whose well-documented story about joining the team in November after having prepared to become a substitute teacher because it appeared as if his playing days had come to an end.
"That's question No. 972 about Chase," quipped Coughlin, before launching into a lengthy explanation of how quickly Blackburn was able to contribute to the Giants' cause and what type of player he is.
"Chase was prepared to come back prior to when we brought him back," said Coughlin. "He had worked out for us and he was anxious about it. To be honest with you, from the second he arrived, it was like he never left. He absorbed where we were real fast, jumped right back into special teams, jumped into the linebacker role and progressed into the linebacker role. He's playing a lot now on defense, as well as special teams. He's probably one of two or three of our players who has the most positive supportive role on the sideline for offense and special teams. He's really jumped right in and done more than you could ask of anybody to help in as many ways as he can. He'll volunteer to do anything; he's just that kind of guy."
A more newsworthy note that Coughlin offered was that RB Ahmad Bradshaw would not practice with the team on Wednesday. However, the coach pointed out that it is routine for Bradshaw to skip Wednesday practices in an effort to help preserve him. (Update: Bradshaw did practice on Wednesday, deciding he wanted to be part of the team's first workout in Indianapolis.)
Coughlin was asked how his staff was preparing for the Patriots' offense with the prospect of TE Rob Gronkowski possibly missing the game with an ankle injury.
"Not to belittle the question, I really do think he'll play," said Coughlin. "It sounds like he's making great progress. You could have somewhat of a difference in percentages, if you will, for the style of the type of personnel used. I don't see a lot of change in how they approach it. They always run the ball and they will always do that in whatever fashion they choose, whether it be by series or whether all of a sudden, at the end, you realize that they've rushed the ball X-amount of times for X-amount of yards. I just think that we'll prepare as if he'll play and we'll do our due diligence with any of these other personnel combinations that come up.
"They've been very successful in that personnel set you're referring to, whether it be two receivers, a runner, and two tight ends, or two tight ends and three receivers. They've been extremely successful with that, and it's been tied into their no-huddle offense and the speed with which they can do things. We are preparing, naturally, for different personnel sets, but also including the fact that we think he'll play."
Coughlin closed his Wednesday press conference by addressing something that Patriots coach Bill Belichick addressed earlier in the day — the Giants' deep pool of talented edge rushers. Coughlin corrected a questioner who referred to having such depth as a "luxury."
"It's not a luxury. It's a style and a way in which we prefer to play," said Coughlin. "It's a position that we place an awful lot of stock in. ... One of the questions that had been asked this morning was, to get pressure, how do you go about doing that? If you can do it with four rather than the rest, then you can cover — you've got more people involved in coverage, obviously. The great, skilled defensive linemen that come along, rare or not rare, if they have the other attributes that you're looking for, they're going to give you a number of weapons. Mentioning athleticism, speed and that type of thing, they provide versatility for you, as well."
— Keith Schleiden
Belichick: Gronkowski day-to-day
With the Patriots returning to the practice field on Wednesday, the team is entering the period of Super Bowl week that most closely resembles a normal week of pregame preparation.
"It's going to be like a regular Wednesday, Thursday, Friday for us from here on out, so hopefully we'll take those days of preparation and be ready to go," said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick during his Wednesday-morning press conference.
Keeping in line with one of the dominant themes of the week, the first question involved the health status of TE Rob Gronkowski, who is out of the walking boot but still attempting to get his ankle healthy enough to play on Sunday.
"Rob's doing better, so we'll just have to see where he is today," said Belichick. "He's making improvement, getting better every day. We're just taking it day-to-day."
One of the Belichick's greatest challenges in this game will be keeping QB Tom Brady clean in the face of the Giants' fierce pass rush. Getting on the field again will give the Patriots a chance to work on protecting Brady, who was sacked twice by the Giants in Week Nine. The Giants recorded 48 sacks in 2011.
"They have great quickness up there, as well as power," noted Belichick. "They'll blitz inside guys and really knock the line of scrimmage back. When they move (Jason) Pierre-Paul and (Justin) Tuck and those guys inside in passing situations, they have great quickness in there, too. (Chris) Canty is a long guy who is kind of slippery in the pass rush. They play strong in the run game. They have a good combination of power, speed and athleticism."
So what does Belichick do to prepare his offensive linemen for the upcoming onslaught of Giants pass rushers?
"We try to move our guys around a little bit, and get them to play like the Giants play," said Belichick. "I don't know if anybody can play like the Giants play. They have so many talented guys up there. We do our best to simulate that. They try to bat some balls down, even in 7-on-7 when there is no pass rush. We get some guys up there at the line of scrimmage to try to distract the quarterback, and bat balls down, things like that, because they are so good at that, too."
Belichick addressed why the New England roster has changed so dramatically since these teams last met in the Super Bowl four years ago. But he was also quick to point out, if you survey the league as a whole, he thinks similar roster churning is the norm, not the exception.
"I think there is a pretty high level of turnover throughout the league over a four-year period, no matter what team you go to. You can look at the team we are playing, they have a few more guys than we do. Not all that many. I think that's common in the league. After four years, you are going to see that kind of turnover."
Belichick intimated that during the period of time when the Patriots' last stretch of dominance was winding down, when they won three Super Bowls in a four-year period, it was becoming clear that a roster overhaul was going to be necessary in the not-too-distant future.
"We certainly knew at the end of the 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006 range, right in there, we could certainly see a lot of our key players aging," Belichick said. "We knew, sooner than later, we would have to replace some of those players. We ended up replacing quite a few in the last couple of years, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. That's just the way our team was. We won a lot of games with those guys in the 2003-07 stretch in there, but it doesn't last forever in football. Somewhere along the line, young players come in, and old players move on."
Belichick's Wednesday presser ended on a funny note, when he tried to avoid answering an ESPN reporter's question about the current state of the Pro Bowl, which has drawn its share of criticism recently for a lack of competition between teams.
"Uh, you know, what I'm going to say wouldn't be probably what I should say," said Belichick, choosing his words carefully in an effort to avoid getting into hot water with the league for bad-mouthing the Pro Bowl.
After a long pause, he then offered this: "What it was and what it is now is a lot different. I'll just take the Super Bowl questions."
— Keith Schleiden
Umenyiora fined for missing media session
Giants DE Osi Umenyiora gave NFL Network all it wanted on Tuesday, answering a question about Patriots OT Matt Light missing practice on Tuesday with an illness, with a joke and a smile.
On Wednesday, Umenyiora was nowhere to be seen during a mandatory 45-minute news media interview session, and as a result, he has been fined $20,000, according to NFL Network reporter Albert Breer.
A source said that Umenyiora was present at a team meeting directly following the media session, and all other players and coaches were present at the media session.
— PFW staff
Parry will head Super Bowl officiating crew
The NFL will trot out a veteran seven-man crew of officials on Sunday for Super Bowl XLVI.
Referee John Parry will lead the crew at Lucas Oil Stadium, where he will be assisted by umpire Carl Paganelli, head linesman Tom Stabile, line judge Gary Arthur, field judge Gary Cavaletto, side judge Laird Hayes and back judge Tony Steratore. The officating crew altogether has 94 years of NFL officiating experience and 69 playoff game assignments. Larry Nemmers will serve as replay assistant, while Lou Nazzaro will serve as the video operator.
As the head of the pack, Parry has substantial experience, including a stint as side judge during Super Bowl XLI. In his 12th season as an NFL game official, and his fifth as an NFL referee, Parry has officiated nine playoff games in his career.
Under the NFL officiating program's evaluation system, the highest-rated eligible officials at each position earn the right to work the Super Bowl, so long as they have at least five years of NFL experience, as well as previous playoff assignments.
— PFW staff