Posted January 24, 2012

Break It Down, Super Bowl Matchups: Patriots’ TEs vs. Giants’ D

New England Patriots, New York Giants

There are a multitude of ways the Pats can use their tight ends to beat a defense. (Greg M. Cooper/US Presswire)

To get you ready for Super Bowl XLVI, “Break It Down” will take a closer look at five matchups, one per day, that will be critical to the Patriots-Giants showdown.

Monday: Vince Wilfork vs. Giants’ O-line

There are matchups in Super Bowl XLVI that favor the Giants. The one we looked at Monday — Wilfork vs. New York’s O-line — and our second installment featuring Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez against the Giants’ D — are not at the top of the list.

When these two teams met in Week 9, Gronkowski made eight catches for 101 yards and a touchdown, while Hernandez caught four passes for 35 yards and a score of his own.

Earlier this season, “Break It Down” took an in-depth look at Gronkowski, following his huge Week 12 performance vs. the Eagles. The prevailing theme then was the same as it is for anyone watching Gronkowski now: New England does so many unique things with him (and Aaron Hernandez), that it’s a nightmare for opposing defenses.

But before we get back into that, let’s start with New York’s issues against Vernon Davis on Sunday.

The first of two Davis TDs was a long 73-yard strike. On the play, Davis lined up tight to the right side of the line with no wide receiver outside of him.

Safety Antrel Rolle was responsible for Davis — he started about six yards off the line. That would be well and good against a normal tight end, one who runs mostly shorter routes over the middle.

Davis is not one of those guys. He smoked Rolle up the sideline on a wheel route, and Deon Grant did not close fast enough with deep support to prevent Davis from making a catch and taking it to the house.

Grant, for what it’s worth, had the best game in the early Giants-Patriots matchup when it came to covering the tight ends. He didn’t allow a single catch in his direction and picked off a Brady pass to Gronkowski down the middle.

He did not have the same success Sunday. And the problems were similar for the Giants on Davis’ second TD. San Francisco motioned Davis from Alex Smith’s right to his left just before the snap, and New York countered by racing safety Kenny Phillips up to the line to match up with the 49ers’ tight end.

But Phillips, like Rolle earlier, allowed Davis to get behind him, and the deep help from Corey Webster did not get there before the ball did. As a result Davis wound up in the end zone again.

Plain and simple, that deep coverage on the tight ends must be better by New York in the Super Bowl, because Tom Brady loves to stretch the field with Hernandez and, to an even greater extent, Gronkowski.

The Giants can live with giving up some underneath passes to that duo. Letting Gronkowski and Hernandez get behind the secondary like Davis did will be a recipe for disaster.

But, stopping the duo is easier said than done — mainly because of the plethora of different looks the Pats use with their tight ends.

For example, we’ll go back to New England’s first three plays from scrimmage Sunday against the Ravens. On first down the Patriots put both Gronkowski (boxed in yellow) and Hernandez (orange arrow) on the right side of the line.

One play later, Hernandez is in the backfield to Brady’s left and Gronkowski has shifted to an offset spot on the right side of the line, similar to where Hernandez had been for that first-down play.

A quick interlude here to show you how the Ravens defended that particular look, because it’s probably similar to how the Giants will choose to deal with it.

Baltimore left Ray Lewis to patrol the middle of the field, dropped a safety down in coverage on Hernandez (orange) and kept Gronkowski (yellow) occupied with a linebacker.

This is asking a lot of those defenders in one-on-one matchups, but the alternatives are not great. Either you try to sit in a zone and hope the defensive line can get there (remember that one option …) or you roll the dice and send one safety to each tight end, leaving the deep parts of the field incredibly vulnerable.

OK, interlude over.

The Patriots’ third play from scrimmage featured a third look, this time with Gronkowski on the right side back on the line, Hernandez shifted over to Brady’s right and a trips-WR formation on the left.

It’s just a dizzying approach from the Patriots’ offense. And what it does is forces the defense’s hand — given the speed of New England’s no-huddle and the seemingly infinite number of ways Gronkowski and Hernandez can be lined up, assigning one specific defender to each guy is an almost-impossible task.

Oh yeah, and you can’t forget about the rest of New England’s weapons either. Be it Deion Branch, Wes Welker or a trio of running backs, Brady will spread the ball around to his other targets.

Here’s one play from Sunday’s game that resulted in a solid gain for Branch. Brady first looked down the middle to Gronkowski, who had the attention of two defenders. To Brady’s left, Hernandez lined up as a wide receiver and went deep, clearing out another defender. That left a wide open spot at the sideline for Branch, who sat down and made an easy grab.

It works both ways, too, with the receivers/running backs showing up as decoys for the tight ends from time to time.

Take this 20-yard gain from Gronkowski against the Ravens. Danny Woodhead and Welker both cut across the middle of the field, drawing the Ravens’ linebacking corps up and leaving Gronkowski with room to get in front of Baltimore’s deep safety for a catch.

You’re basically playing a “pick your poison” game against New England. One more example from Sunday:

The Ravens opted to go with press coverage on New England’s two wide receivers and Hernandez, then pulled a linebacker up to cover Gronkowski. But Gronkowski just ran to that circled area, which was totally vacated, and hauled one in before the Ravens’ safety could get there.

So, is it a total lost cause for New York? Maybe … but not necessarily, for a couple of reasons.

One: The Giants have some athletic linebackers who can cover over the middle. That showed up Sunday against the 49ers, like on the pictured play below when Chase Blackburn (boxed) dropped on a deep crossing route with Davis and broke up a pass.

The Giants also could use some zone with those linebackers and try to force Brady to beat them deep with Branch or Welker.

That was one of the tactics New York used against Tony Gonzalez in the wild-card round. The picture below is from a 3rd-and-8 passing play, and Gonzalez (boxed) went in motion to change up the Giants’ set.

The Giants rushed four, dropped two safeties and a linebacker deep, then kept four guys — two linebackers and two corners — in front of the first-down line. Gonzalez, essentially, was bracketed by the zone look.

Matt Ryan tried to dump one off underneath to Jacquizz Rodgers and ended up throwing an incompletion.

The second big reason for hope in New York is that defensive line pressure, specifically if it’s generated without a blitz, can disrupt New England’s timing. Luckily for the Giants, they have one of the game’s elite pass-rushing lines, thanks to Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and so on.

Getting in Brady’s face can keep him from going over the top to Gronkowski or Hernandez, in turn forcing him to rush short passes. That’s what happened on both the Patriots’ second and third plays from scrimmage against Baltimore (which were highlighted above) — the Ravens brought some heat, preventing Brady from cycling through his reads.

The Giants did the same against Atlanta, time and again, in the wild-card round. Here, you can see the result of one such moment of pressure, with Michael Boley closing on Gonzalez at the 25 and Ryan struggling to find an open man.

But compare that to the Week 9 matchup between New England and New York, when the pressure didn’t get to the QB on the Pats’ late touchdown.

This was how they lined up then:

Hernandez was way up top there, with Gronkowski in tight and matched up with Boley.

No pressure meant that Gronkowski could get downfield — and asking Boley to cover him for four or five seconds is just unfair.

That’s just too easy for Brady. The Giants, no doubt, took some lessons from defending Gronkowski and Hernandez in Week 9, but giving up 150 yards and two touchdowns to that combo again would put New York’s D in a hole.

As with the Vince Wilfork matchup, the Giants will have to do some outstanding work to limit Gronkowski and Hernandez on Super Bowl Sunday. It can be done, with some front-four pressure and varied looks on defense, but the Patriots will do whatever it takes to keep their tight ends involved.

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