Defensive scheming will be key to determining the outcome of Superbowl XLVI


Most seasons the Superbowl is played with teams using exotic packages and schemes. The last time these teams met on the biggest stage of all saw the record breaking New England Patriots chase a perfect 19-0 record with an explosive spread based offence that used deception and speed to punish teams throughout the year.

The eventual winners of that clash, the New York Giants, on the other hand were able to bring pressure solely with their down linemen and challenge the Patriots with a baffling mixture of pressure on the quarterback and man/zone coverage in Tom Brady’s passing lanes.

There are numerous similarities between this weekend’s Superbowl and the one from four years ago but while the Giants defence is still based on creating pressure from the defensive line the offences of both teams are dramatically different.

The Patriots have evolved from a team that used the spread concepts with four receiver sets and utilising the speed of Randy Moss on the outside of the field to create woes for their opponents into one that now uses the tight ends as their primary weapons. Tom Brady has once more shown that he can be anything that his team needs him to be with the Patriots playbook now dominated by short and intermediate passes to Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

The duo of second year tightends combined for over 2200 yards during the regular season and more than half of Brady’s touchdown passes. New England’s Wes Welker also continues to be the most dominant slot receiver in football with the former Texas Tech Red Raider once again proving to have the most reliable set of hands in the NFL; his 122 catches led the league.

With the Giants bringing pressure from their front four they can afford to drop their defensive backs and linebackers into coverage to attack the passing lanes of the Patriots, just as they did four years ago, but with the Patriots now employing a very different set of offensive weapons and using a different base personnel it will be interesting to see how the Giants defend Brady’s offence.

Gronkowski provides a riddle that has left defences stranded in 2011. The tighend brings a combination of speed, good hands and strength to the field that has made it all but impossible to defend against. The Giants will look to use their linebacker corp to defend Gronkowski, as each team has done so during the year, and use safety help to blanket the threat posed by the player that had the most explosive season at his position in the history of the NFL.

The problem posed however is that a LB does not have enough speed to cover Gronkowski if Brady has time in the pocket and a safety does not have the strength to defend against the 265lb tightend. The Giants therefore need to get as much pressure on Brady as possible to limit the chances of Gronkowski receiving the pass on time.

One of the reasons that the Giants were so successful in their last Superbowl match was because Brady needed time for plays to develop because of the play scheme that saw Moss used for deep through but with their current scheme based around their TE Brady requires less time in the pocket to find his primary targets.

For New York therefore the pre-snap period is just as important as from the time that the play starts. The Giants need to force New England and Brady into adjusting their route tree and play concepts by faking blitzes and bringing extra players to the line.

On Sunday one of the most important players on the Giants defence may not be Jason Pierre-Paul, their defensive end with 16 sacks; it might be safety Kenny Philips. If the Giants bring Phillips to the line of scrimmage in the pre-snap period the safety will be in position to immediately offer outside linebackers, Michael Boley and Kawika Mitchell, assistance in defending against Gronkowski.

The safety can drop back into a shallow coverage and defend against the short passes thrown to the tightend. In addition to this the Giants would also be in a position to bait Brady into attempting passes to Deion Branch by appearing during the pre-snap to have only single coverage in their backfield. In plays where this occurs, with their corner-backs in man-to-man coverage the Giants could have Phillips move towards the line of scrimmage in an apparent blitz or short yardage coverage of Gronkowski only for the fourth year veteran to drop back into deep safety coverage and offer over the top assistance to his corner.

The Giants will need to use exotic schemes if they are to defend against the Pats who can bring with them an offence that can grind down even the best of defences with their intermediate throws.

It is interesting that even with Brady throwing for over 5000 yards this season the Patriots can now also bring a threat in the ground game in the red zone. From inside their opponent’s ten yard line the Patriots are in a terrific position to scheme against the defence and use alignments to create running lanes and scoring opportunities in short yardage situations.

The Patriots can align in their Ace formation (2WR, 2TE and 1RB) and force opponents to respect the pass to Gronkowski while also scheming to create the needed running lanes. One of the simplest running schemes is the power running game which sees the tackle and guard pull from the opposite side of the offensive line and block against the defence. The Patriots use this to great effect to block against the linebackers of their opponents.

In the AFC Championship game against the Ravens the Patriots shut down the Baltimore defence by using Nick Solder and Logan Mankins to block Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis while utilising the likes of Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez to block the safeties and create a huge running lane for BenJarvus Green-Ellis to run in for a score.

If the Patriots can use such a scheme on Sunday in the red zone it can be all but impossible to defend against, even for a team with as good a defensive front as the Giants.

The evolution of the Giants offence has also been significant. Whereas when the Giants won the Superbowl in 2008 their offence was centred on their strong running attack this year their success is based on the arm and confidence of Eli Manning.

The younger brother of Peyton has been consistently underrated throughout his career but in 2011 the former number one overall draft choice has firmly established his credentials as possible future hall of famer.

Manning now plays with the confidence of a veteran who knows exactly what he will face at any given time. He has played superbly in guiding the unfancied Giants to the Superbowl and on Sunday he will relish being the focus of attention.

The Giants use a series of simple schemes to create space and matchup problems for their opponents. Coming into the season Victory Cruz was an unheralded receiver who surprised many by making the 53 man roster for the season.

The second year receiver, who didn’t catch a pass as a rookie, though quickly established himself as Manning’s favourite receiver and one of the better deep threats in the league. Whereas in the opening half of the season the Giants used the former University of Massachusetts receiver as a deep threat wide out his role developed as his chemistry with Manning improved.

Eventually the Giants started to use Cruz in a variety of positions and with a range of routes in a bid to create mismatches and space for their new found star. On Sunday do not be surprised to see Cruz line-up in the slot andNew Yorklook to use him for short yardage out routes on crucial plays to move the chains.

When Cruz lines up in the slot his actual positioning should give the key to the purpose that he has in that play call. If in the slot position he lines up inside the numbers and close to the Giants TE expect for Manning to look to shift the pocket protection to Cruz’ side of the field and then to throw a quick pass to the outside of Cruz looking for his receiver to catch the ball and turn immediately up field.

If the Giants come out in such a package the Patriots need to force Cruz to adjust his planned route. The easiest way to do this is for safety assistance for the defensive back covering Cruz. In this case the nickel-back will look to favour the outside of the field, by taking up position to break to the outside and therefore force Cruz to make an adjustment. This could see him decide to take a post route and therefore into an area where the safety can defend him or it could see Cruz forced to change his route towards midfield and again the safety can defend against this.

The one thing that the Patriots defence can take for granted in any situation where Cruz is in the slot is that he is still the primary target and forcing him into indecision is the most effective way of slowing down the Giants offence. For much of 2011 the New England defence has struggled but with two weeks to prepare for the Superbowl it would be unwise to expect anything less than a fully prepared unit that while not as talented as the Giants defence will use their own schemes and intelligence to forceNew Yorkto adjust their game plan.

The Giants defence will also look to use play action and movement to confuse the Patriots defence. Even though Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw struggled throughout the regular season their ability to run the football still has to be respected, particularly in the red zone. As a result the Giants will look to scheme different opportunities close to theNew Englandend zone.

Whereas the Patriots will look to create running lanes for their back the Giants will look to use play-action to create space for Eli Manning and his offence.

The Giants will use motion across the line of scrimmage and fake a handoff to their backs to force the Patriot linebackers to freeze momentarily as they determine the potential threat. The Giants will then look to use basic route progressions for Manning to find an open receiver.

By using motion across the line the Giants will look to create a mismatch of a receiver against a linebacker and to confuse the New England linebackers an secondary to create a scoring opportunity. If the linebackers pause and create space for the Giants receivers you can expect for one of the slot receivers to use a simple curl route and give Manning the opportunity for an uncontested touchdown. This type of play is dependent on the Patriots linebackers respecting the run in the end zone but if they do not the motion across the line of scrimmage can also be used to create a bunch formation and utilise a standard spot route tree that sees the tight end free in space created by the wide receivers and running back.

This offensive scheme displays the keys of the Hi-Lo concept while actually the focus of the play is the direct opposite. The defence is forced to defend against the streaking defenders, which are not the primary targets, while the offence looks for the tight end, generally running an out or drag route, or the running back coming from the backfield as the targets.

The Giants have a variety on offence that were deemed to lack in the lead up to the 2008 Superbowl while the Patriots now seemingly lack the explosiveness that marked their 16-0 regular season mark heading into their previous Superbowl matchup. The offences have changed in the intervening years but they are still based on schemes to get the ball into their playmakers hands and create mismatches. The offensive schemes will be the focus of Superbowl 46 but this game will be won by the defence that can best force their opposition to rethink their schemes.

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