Giants prove three's a swarm

Posted: September 04, 2008

WHEN YOU THINK of the big plays in the Giants' Super Bowl win over the Patriots last February, you think of David Tyree's amazing ball-pressed-against-his-helmet catch and the interception that went right through Asante Samuel's hands and Eli Manning's game-winning 13-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress.

You don't think of the Patriots' first offensive play of the game, a seemingly insignificant incompletion on a screen pass from quarterback Tom Brady to running back Laurence Maroney.

But Minnesota Vikings head coach Brad Childress thinks of it. And so does Brady, who got his teeth rattled by Giants defensive linemen Osi Umenyiora and Barry Cofield on that first play as he tried to deliver the ball to Maroney.

"That play was as important as any in that game," said Childress, the Eagles' former offensive coordinator. "They hit him hard. Sent him a message that they were going to be coming after him.

"You can't let a guy get comfortable back there. You want to get him out of his rhythm. Go back to our Super Bowl against New England where Donovan [McNabb] has to run to the sideline and gets nailed [by Patriots linebacker Roman Phifer] on the first play. Go back and look at that. They knocked him all the way to the wall. That's a bad thing to have happen on the first play of the game.

"I remember Rod Dowhower saying years ago, 'You can tell a quarterback to stand in there and set his feet and not get happy feet. But when you're getting jaw-jacked, for you not to slide or move or move those feet, well, you can say you won't. But after you get pounded on, it's going to happen.' That's what pressure does."

What pressure did to Brady last February was turn one of the two best quarterbacks in the game into just another guy. Led by their three-headed pass-rush monster of defensive linemen Michael Strahan (who has retired), Osi Umenyiora (out for this season with a knee injury) and Justin Tuck, the Giants were in Brady's face the whole game, sacking him five times and upsetting his rhythm just about every time he dropped back.

"They never slowed down," Brady said. "They were relentless for four quarters."

Actually, they were relentless all season. The Giants finished with a league-high 53 sacks, including 32 by Umenyiora (13), Tuck (10) and Strahan (nine). No pass-rushing trio in the league had more.

"One of the things [former Giants general manager] Ernie [Accorsi] taught me is this league is about rushing the passer," second-year Giants GM Jerry Reese said. "If you can rush the passer, you've got a chance in this game. You saw the fruits of that in the Super Bowl. Rushing the passer, that's the name of the game."

The numbers clearly bear that out. Of the 36 teams that have made it to the AFC and NFC Championship Games the last nine seasons, 27 were ranked in the top 10 in quarterback sacks. Just two of the last nine Super Bowl winners have ranked lower than sixth in sacks (the '06 Colts who were 30th, and the '01 Patriots, who were 13th). Just one of those nine Super Bowl winners had fewer than 41 sacks (Colts, 25).

"It's been clear to me for the last 20 years that you've got to be able to rush the passer," said Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, whose unit has registered more than 40 sacks just once in the last 5 years. "It was clear in the Super Bowl. It was clear when we played the Patriots [a narrow 31-28 loss in Week 12]. Brady wasn't the same quarterback when we put pressure on him."

"[Rushing the passer] has been important forever," said Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, who was the Eagles' secondary coach under Johnson from 1999 to 2002. "But especially now with the new rules, where you can't bump a guy past 5 yards.

"It puts a premium on being able to rush the passer with four people. It's what everybody wants to be able to do on defense. But you don't always have the guys up front that the Giants had last year to get it done."

Umenyiora and Strahan were the league's most lethal pair of pass-rushing ends. But Tuck, who had a total of one sack in his first two inconspicuous seasons with the Giants, was the added ingredient who made their pass rush so lethal last season. The 6-5, 280-pounder rotated outside with Umenyiora and Strahan, then was moved inside to tackle in the Giants' nickel package by defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, another Johnson disciple. Most of Tuck's 10 sacks came inside.

"To me, [Tuck] was the key," Johnson said. "They got a push up the middle. It's always one of the hardest things to do to get a good push up the middle. But they got that from him.

"I was a little bit surprised [by Tuck]. Coming out of college, I didn't think he'd be that good. But he showed how good he is. That was the difference in the Super Bowl. He got some inside pressure [and two of the Giants' five sacks] and then you had those other two guys coming outside."

The Giants hardly are the first team to rush three ends in their nickel package. Buddy Ryan used to frequently move Richard Dent into the middle when he was the Bears' defensive boss in the 1980s, and former Eagles defensive coordinator Bud Carson used to do it with Reggie White. The Packers did the same thing with White when he signed with them.

Johnson did it last year with Darren Howard. The two differences: Tuck is a better inside pass rusher than Howard, and Johnson didn't have two edge rushers like Umenyiora and Strahan to keep the pressure off him.

"When you've got two guys like Osi and Michael on the outside, a lot of times you've got to double at least one of them," said the Giants' Reese. "Because at least one of them is going to be a matchup problem [for the tackle]. So that gives Tuck some one-on-one opportunities inside.

"The thing about Justin is he's got an unusual body type. He's big enough and strong enough that he could play full-time inside. He's what we call a left end. A 3-4 end or a bigger guy you put on the left side of your line. He has unusual quickness for his size. So he's a matchup problem inside."

Johnson had planned to use second-year man Victor Abiamiri the same way the Giants use Tuck. Line him up at left end on first and second down, then slide him inside to tackle on passing downs. But the 6-4, 267-pound Abiamiri injured a wrist in training camp and is out indefinitely.

Tuck said it took him a while to get acclimated to moving inside on passing downs.

"Inside was a whole different world initially," he said. "Things happen a lot quicker inside. Your steps are different. Outside, you can take longer strides rushing the passer. Inside, you've got to make your mind up real quick.

"Outside, you have so much more room to dictate what offensive linemen are going to do to you. Inside, you really can get blocked by any one of three people. That kind of makes it difficult to figure out what you want to do. Everything inside is off reading."

Because of the Giants' pass-rushing success last season, more teams probably will try rushing three d-ends on passing downs this season. But that doesn't mean it will work as well for them as it did for the Giants.

"If you've got a guy with quickness and athleticism and strength, you want to do it because he's going to be able to overpower guards with his strength, and then when he gets them a little off-balance, he can run by them," said the Vikings' Frazier. "It was especially effective in New York because of the two guys they had on the edge. Tuck got a lot of one-on-one blocks inside against guys he was more athletic than." *

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