Super Bowl Focus: Déjà Vu in the Trenches?
Super Bowl Focus: Déjà Vu in the Trenches?
It was the theme and most memorable attribute of Super Bowl XLII. Even more so than the game-winning touchdown pass from Eli Manning to Plaxico Burress, and the New York Giants victory over the New England Patriots. The unstoppable juggernaut grounded by a defensive front having its way with the opposing offensive line.
It was the manifestation of an age-old theory that pressure trumps everything when it comes to stopping a passing offense. The Giants brought that pressure and the vaunted Patriot offense simply couldn’t match the form it had shown all season to lead New England to perfection.
The comparisons are obvious and unavoidable, but how accurately does the trench battle of 2007 match up with that of 2011? Much of the focus is on how over-powering that Giants’ front was and how favorably the current unit compares, with the inevitable leap of faith that the Giants are almost a lock to repeat that success. In our second preview for this Sunday’s game, we take a look at the performance of the New England offensive line and the New York defensive line to see just how likely we are to see that dominance again.
With such a recent rematch of a classic Super Bowl, the comparisons between the 2007 and 2011 teams are overflowing. Protagonists from both lines return, but almost the entire focus is between the Giants’ defensive lines of 2007 and 2011. That Giant defensive front was led by the so called “Four Aces” package and was a truly dominant unit for long stretches of the season. This year’s unit has picked up its own catchy title being called the so called “NASCAR front” for their raw physicality and aggression rushing the passer.
Certainly this unit is one of the stronger four-man fronts in the league, but is the NASCAR front really a match for the Four Aces? Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck return from that Super Bowl squad and while each has showed up with strong performances in the playoffs, they are not playing at their 2007 level. The Giants have one stud on this line in the shape of Jason Pierre-Paul (+34.2), “The Haitian Sensation”, but have nobody to fill the role of Michael Strahan, the hungry veteran rolling back the years with some of the best form of his career.
Sure, there have been glimpses of great play from this unit and you wouldn’t bet against them putting it together in one game. For example, the Giants’ defensive line had 27 pressures on 35 San Francisco pass plays in their last game, but in terms of consistency, this Giant D-line has not approached the level of the 2007 unit.
The forgotten side of this matchup is a New England offensive line that has very quietly been one of the league’s better groups. Including the playoffs, the Patriots have our sixth-ranked offensive line in terms of Pass Blocking Efficiency. That is at least four spots ahead of every other offensive line that the Giants have faced in their playoff run. A playoff run on which the Giants’ biggest spike in terms of total pressure and snaps per pressure has come against the San Francisco 49ers, a line that ranks 27th in our Pass Blocking Efficiency ranking. Suffice it to say any implication that this match up will be a walk-over is wide of the mark, the Giants may yet dominate, but the matchup on paper does not indicate that will be the most likely outcome.
Week 9 in Review
If the Week 9 game between the Giants and the Patriots was supposed to be the prelude to this game in the way that the Week 17 of 2007 proved to be, then in the trenches these two teams were shadow boxing, not looking to give anything away.
The Patriots’ offensive line had the better of the game in comparison to their season average as their offensive linemen (not team total) gave up only 10 total pressures on 52 pass plays compared to their season average of 10 on 42. Across the way, the Giants’ defensive linemen (opposed to the whole defense) registered only 10 total pressures on 52 pass plays compared to a season average of 15 on 43.
The Giants couldn’t have anticipated that they would be meeting the Patriots 12 weeks later, but they certainly kept their powder dry in this encounter. Their most effective pass rusher in that game was weak side linebacker Michael Boley. He recorded pressure on two of his four blitzes and was the only Giant defender to grade positively as a pass rusher (+2.7). If the Patriots offensive line was supposed to be left quaking in its boots at the mere sight of the Giants’ pass rush, then they certainly proved otherwise in Week 9.
Regular Season Indicators
After a mid-season lull, the Giants’ defensive pass rush has been on a largely upward trend. This, ironically, occured in a victory over the Dallas Cowboys, clinched by one of their number making a special teams play. Ever since that victory the Giants’ D-line has recorded at least 10 total pressures in each game and has put up at least 20 on three occasions, having done that only once in 12 games leading to that victory in Dallas. Momentum is certainly behind them.
One of those 20 pressure games came against the Cowboys, a surge from 15 pressures in their first encounter. In a season of rematches, the Giants have faced five teams on two different occasions prior to this game. Three times (against the Redskins, Cowboys, and 49ers) they fared better in the rematch with the Giants seeing large gains against the Cowboys (snaps per pressure down from 7.2 to 2.3) and the 49ers (3.4 down to 1.3) the second time around. The Eagles and Packers however, did better the second time around. The Eagles, in particular, figured out the Giants’ pass rush, yielding only seven total pressures to Giant defensive linemen on 40 pass plays.
Meanwhile, the Patriots’ offensive line this season has simply been a model of consistency and quality. Their worst three games of the season in terms of total pressure allowed came against the Eagles, Cowboys and Dolphins (Week 16) and they only conceded 10 pressures per game for the entire season.
In terms of pressure per snap, they only gave up pressure more than once every three snaps twice all season long, their third-best game of the regular season came against the Giants in Week 9. However you slice the numbers, this offensive line is ready for–and capable of meeting–the challenge of New York’s front as a unit. With only Nate Solder (-5.5) and Dan Connolly (-5.7) grading negatively in pass protection, they are capable as individuals of matching up with the Giants’ pass rushers as well.
Jason Pierre–Paul has rushed from the left side of the line 67 times in the Giants’ last four games, that’s 34% of his rushes from the left side in less than 20% of the Giants’ games. Their ability to isolate Pierre-Paul on Solder, if Sebastian Vollmer doesn’t start at RT, may be the Giants’ best chance for consistent success rushing the passer.
Many are predicting this to be a key battle ground with the Giants’ “NASCAR front” holding a clear edge. While it is certainly an important matchup, the true tale of the tape suggests that the slate is far from stacked in the Giants’ favor.
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Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.