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Sports Then and Now

Super Bowl XLVI Preview: Part 3

Posted on February 03, 2012 by Dan Alper

It's been a frustrating year for Sebastian Vollmer, but his return could bolster an improved Patriots running game.

In Super Bowl XLII Tom Brady attempted 48 passes. In the week eight meeting between these two teams Brady attempted 49 passes. It is easy for fans, media types, and even coaches to become overly enamored with the Patriots passing attack, and it’s hard to blame them. But against a Giants team whose hallmark remains the ability to generate pressure with only a four man rush it’s damn near suicidal to drop back that many times. The Giants pass rush is too good to give them that many opportunities to get after the quarterback.

To keep Brady clean the Patriots must be able to run the ball. The Giants are exceedingly likely to dare New England to run. In their first three playoff games defensive coordinator Perry Fewell has called for a rush of four or fewer men over eighty percent of the time, and given their past success using four-man pressures against Brady there’s little reason to believe this strategy will change.

The Giants front four of Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora, and Chris Canty are the best pass rushing unit in the league, but they lack a true run-stopper. They simply don’t have the beef on the interior of the line, and their aggressive up-field rushes leave a lot of the run responsibilities to their linebacking corps, the weakest unit on their defense.

New York loves to run twists and stunts along the defensive line in much the same way that Baltimore does. Baltimore focused a lot of their action of their action on the right side of the Patriots line, targeting rookie Nate Solder in particular. The Patriots did a good job of sliding protection to help Solder. Rob Gronkowski spent a considerable amount of snaps helping Solder with chips off the line, and Brian Waters is perhaps New England’s best help blocker. The Giants will focus most of their action on the right side of the Patriots offensive line, and if Belichick and Bill O’Brien are able to anticipate when this action will come, they will have opportunities to exploit the Giant run defense.

The probable return of Sebastian Vollmer can only have positive effects on New England’s ability to run the ball. The Patriots leaned heavily on their three TE set int he first game against the Giants, but Vollmer’s health issues have severely limited their ability to use this formation from that point on. I would look for the Patriots to utilize Aaron Hernandez out of the backfield in their heavy sets. His new found versatility as a half-back along with the return of Vollmer means that the Patriots could run the ball using Gronkowski and Solder as TEs on an unbalanced line, but that package would still leave leave room for two receivers in addition to the presence of Hernandez and Gronkowski making the formation potentially lethal in play-action.

It would also allow New England to pull Logan Mankins when running right. Mankins is one of the better pulling guards in the league, and kicking him outside would leave Hernandez (or whomever) running behind blocks from Waters, Mankins, Vollmer, Solder, and Gronkowski. That’s an overwhelming amount of force for an undersized Giant defensive line.

New England was able to have success running out of the shot gun against Baltimore. Ben Jarvus Green-Ellis looked more explosive than he had towards the end of the season, and the Patriots have consistently had success running Danny Woodhead out of the no-huddle offense, but the question remains as to whether the Patriots offensive staff is patient enough to stick with the running game. They weren’t against the Jets last year when the Jets dared them to run, Green-Ellis was underutilized against the Ravens considering the success he was having.

All signs point to the fact that Stevan Ridley will dress after being inactive against Baltimore. He has had issues protecting the football, something that cannot be said of Green-Ellis. But unlike Green-Ellis, Ridley provides a big play potential out of the backfield. It remains to be seen whether he’ll have the chance to show it.

With all the focus on Brady and his receivers, it may well be the running attack that wins this game.

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