Patriots-Giants matchup of the day: Saturday

Posted Feb. 04, 2012 @ 8 a.m.
Posted By Kevin Fishbain

Here's a key matchup to watch in Super Bowl XLVI:

Giants third-down offense vs. Patriots third-down defense

The Giants want to score points, move the football, collect first downs and keep Tom Brady off the field. The Patriots want to get their weakest unit — the defense — off the field and get Brady and the offense on the field.

Simple, but a crucial matchup to deciding the outcome of the Super Bowl.

The Giants were 14th in the league in third-down efficiency this season, and the Patriots were a woeful 29th in third-down defense. Eli Manning and company can wear down the Patriots' "D" by converting third downs and keeping Brady off the field as much as possible.

First, let's look back at the Week Nine matchup, where the G-Men struggled to convert on third down. In the game, they were 4-of-14 on third-down opportunities, and 2-of-12 entering their final drive of the game.

But the two third-down plays on that game-winning drive made the difference.

On 3rd-and-10 from his own 39-yard line, Manning hit TE Jake Ballard on a deep seam route for a 28-yard gain. Four plays later, on 3rd-and-goal from the Patriots' one-yard line, Manning hit Ballard again, this time for the game-winning touchdown.

Part of Manning and Ballard's success came from the fact that the Patriots had to employ LB Tracy White, their special-teams ace, on defense in that final drive. That likely won't happen on Sunday.

The Patriots, who were last in the league in third-down defense in 2010, have not improved much in that area. In their AFC title win over the Ravens, Baltimore was 9-of-17 on third down. Lack of lock-down personnel in the secondary and a pass rush that does not strike fear in opposing quarterbacks is a big reason for New England's difficulty getting its defense off the field the past two seasons.

The Pats have been without their top pass rusher, DE Andre Carter, since Week 15, but Mark Anderson has provided a spark. He had a sack and two QB hits in the win over the Ravens and 10 sacks in the regular season. He will be key in getting pressure on Manning early in the play on third-down situations.

In the secondary, look for the Patriots to bring Sterling Moore on as an outside corner and move Devin McCourty to safety in their nickel package. It's something they have done this postseason and could continue, unless Bill Belichick believes that McCourty can man up on the crucial down. WR Julian Edelman also has seen a lot of his time on defense on third downs, though it would be a big mismatch if he's covering Giants WR Victor Cruz.

Manning has been exceptional this season on third down. He had a 109.4 passer rating — good for third-best in the league behind Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers on third downs. He also had the most completions of at least 25 yards on third down — 18. Getting pressure on Manning will be important for the Patriots' front line, but Manning has shown the ability to escape pocket pressure and find the open man. It helps when you have receivers like Hakeem Nicks, Cruz and Mario Manningham.

The Patriots don't blitz that often, and might avoid it on Sunday because of the one-on-one matchups that would give an advantage to the Giants' receivers. If Manning can convert third downs at will, it will be a blow to the Patriots' defense, but any time that New England can force a punt might be considered a win on Sunday, and it will get Brady the ball back.