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Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Don't forget battle in trenches

By Ross Tucker
ESPN.com

Brady versus Manning. Coughlin versus Belichick. The Giants' wide receiver trio versus the Patriots' defensive backs. The Patriots' tight ends versus the Giants' linebackers and safeties.

Those are the matchups that will get all of the attention leading up to Super Bowl XLVI. I get it. Those are the sexy matchups and in those are the things that are easier to see with the naked eye.

If recent history has shown us anything, however, it is that the battle at the line of scrimmage is often the difference in the big game, even if it isn't quite as easily identifiable to the casual fan.

Think about the last Super Bowl matchup between these teams just four years ago. Yes, the David Tyree catch was spectacular. And of course, if Asante Samuel had held on to that interception on the Giants' final drive, the outcome would have been different.

But other than one play here or there, what stands out most from that Super Bowl? Reasonable minds may disagree, but I think the consensus would be the fact that the Giants won the battle in the trenches. Handily. They sacked Brady five times, which rarely happens because of his ability to get the ball out of his hand so quickly. They also hurried and hit him at least a half-dozen other times. The Giants also finished the game with more than twice as many yards on the ground, allowing them to possess the ball and wear down the Pats' defense for Eli Manning's game-winning touchdown drive.

If four years is too long ago to be used as a relevant example, just look at the AFC Championship Game. Brady did not play his usual stellar game. Ravens QB Joe Flacco did. The Patriots lost the turnover battle.

So how was New England even in the game, let alone able to win it?

Its big men got the better of the Ravens' big men, to the surprise of many. The Ravens were not able to run the ball very effectively, especially early. The Patriots, on the other hand, moved the ball on the ground extremely efficiently at times, including when needed in the red zone for both touchdowns.

So who has the edge in Super Bowl XLVI? It's tough to say because there are difficult matchups for both teams, especially in terms of pass protection. The Patriots' O-line has been playing well lately and has arguably the best guard tandem in the NFL in Logan Mankins and Brian Waters. They should be able to handle the interior pass rush of the Giants.

The most concerning matchup for the Pats will be their right tackle, whether it is rookie Nate Solder or veteran Sebastian Vollmer coming back from injury, against the plethora of Giants pass-rushers they will face. The Patriots can, and usually do, try to give their right tackle help in the form of monster tight end Rob Gronkowski. That help is up in the air, however, given the uncertain nature of Gronkowski's playing status as a result of his high-ankle sprain.

On the other side of the ball, the Pats have lacked an elite edge-rusher ever since Pro Bowler Andre Carter suffered a season-ending injury, though they have gotten decent production from Rob Ninkovich and Mark Anderson at times. Both of those players are capable of winning one-on-one matchups against Giants tackles David Diehl and Kareem McKenzie.

The real concern for the Giants is right up the middle. I suspect the Patriots will, at times, line up in what the Giants will call a "Five-Down" alignment. The front has many names from a defensive perspective, like "Double Eagle" and "Bear," but the idea is the same -- have one defender covering up every single offensive lineman. Because most offensive lines will block man-on-man against this front, I very much expect the Patriots to put Vince Wilfork right over the top of Giants center David Baas, just like they did against the Ravens. That is not a favorable matchup for the Giants, to say the least. If New York tries to slide the line where every man has a gap in order to protect Baas, it puts a running back on an edge-rusher like Ninkovich. Again, not ideal.

Whether Baas and Solder can hold up remains to be seen. That, as they say, is why they play the game and why nobody ever really knows what the outcome might be. Maybe one of them rises to the occasion and plays his best game of the season. Maybe one struggles early, loses confidence and is a liability throughout.

Come Sunday night, we'll find out, and those individual matchups, like the rest of them in the trenches, will go a long way toward determining which team emerges as the champions of the 2011-12 season.

From the inbox

Q: It seems that most losing teams in the divisional round had one thing in common: They had coordinators interviewing for coaching jobs elsewhere while preparing for the games. Mike McCoy (Denver), Joe Philbin (Denver) and Gregg Williams (New Orleans) were busy flirting with other teams while they were supposed to be preparing their units for big games. How can that not be distracting? What are your thoughts about the impact of a coordinator who is considering other jobs while leading a team in the playoffs?

Lane in Victoria, Canada

A: There are very strict rules regarding when coaches can be interviewed in those situations. For example, the only time assistant coaches can be interviewed for a potential head-coaching position is during the week leading up to the wild-card round, and that is only if the coach is on one of the teams that has a bye. Of the three coaches you named, the only one who was able to interview during wild-card week was Philbin and none of them interviewed the actual week of the divisional round. Now, that's not to say they might not have spent some time during that week preparing for future interviews, and there is no debating that any time spent on that would take time away from their preparation for the upcoming opponent, but it still comes down to players making plays.

Q: What does a head coach do during a game if he doesn't call plays?

David in Canada

A: Evidently my columns are big in Canada. Back-to-back questions from our neighbors to the north. Head coaches who don't call offensive or defensive plays still have a very full plate. They need to manage the game and be totally focused on everything that entails. That could mean deciding whether to punt, kick a field goal or go for it. Or when to use a timeout in certain situations. Not to mention they have to determine whether to throw a challenge flag. They also are constantly talking strategy with both of their coordinators in the context of where the game stands. In fact, when you consider everything a head coach has to do, it makes you wonder how some of them actually are able to call plays while handling all of the other duties.

Q: How do you feel about the Giants' defense, which specifically targeted 49ers WR Kyle Williams, who already has four concussions? Part of their game plan was to give him a fifth.

Brian in Springfield, Vt.

A: This was disturbing to me because multiple players said it, and that means that it came from a coach or someone of authority. They mentioned that Williams had had a bunch of concussions and they wanted to "rough him up," which leads me to more questions than answers. Wouldn't you want to rough up the other team's returner no matter how many concussions he had? What is the relevancy of his number of concussions; are you trying to deliver a blow to the head to cause another one and knock him out of the game? In fact, if the Giants had, in fact, knocked Williams out of the game, they may not have even won the game because Williams' two costly mistakes were gigantic factors in the victory.

Ross Tucker, who played on the offensive line for five teams in a seven-year NFL career, writes regularly for ESPN.com.