We switch over to the defensive side of the ball to look at arguably the most intriguing position group of this game: the defensive lines.
We start with New England’s three-man front…or is it a four-man front? Depends on the day of the week, and that’s how Bill Belichick likes it. After running the 3-4 for more than a decade, the Pats introduced a 4-3 formation to start the season. But that wasn’t overly successful, and with Albert Haynesworth falling on his face and top pass rusher Andre Carter going down for the year, they’ve recently reverted to using the 3-4 a lot more often.
But they’ve continued to show both looks depending on the matchup, and the man who’s been faced with having to adjust to the constant change-ups has been Mark Anderson, who has emerged as the team’s most effective pass rusher in Carter’s stead. Anderson is probably more of a natural 4-3 end, but he’s fared well standing up when asked.
But the key to the New England line is obviously Vince Wilfork. The four-time Pro Bowler has always been superb at clogging running lanes, and he’s continued to do so this season. But down the stretch, he’s also been applying pressure like never before. Despite battling double teams constantly, the dude has 4.5 sacks in his last seven games and 2.5 already in the postseason (and he’s coming off one of the best games of his career against Baltimore). To put those sack numbers into perspective, Wilfork had just 9.5 sacks in his seven-year career prior to 2011.
It has helped that the red-hot Wilfork has been surrounded by a group of overachieving nobodies from years past. Anderson’s 10 regular-season sacks were more than he had in the previous three years combined. Tackle Kyle Love, undrafted last year out of Mississippi State — has been on a tear, while Brandon Deaderick, a seventh-round pick that same year, has also emerged. Both of those players have flourished since Carter went down.
Thanks to that group as well as reliable vets Shaun Ellis and Gerard Warren, New England’s defensive line might be in the best shape it’s been in all year. It’s almost like the Carter injury in Week 14 was a blessing in disguise, because it’s forced unheralded guys like that to pull even more than their weight.
And while they were gashed a bit by Denver’s superb running game twice down the stretch, they’ve also been able to hold red-hot Reggie Bush and Ray Rice in check in recent weeks. The line has also accounted for four of the team’s eight sacks in the playoffs and 9.5 of the 19 they’ve recorded since losing Carter.
When breaking down New York’s hyped line, you’d think it’d be more difficult to use that “unheralded” word. But when you consider the work they’ve done recently, you realize that their success probably goes beyond the triple pass-rushing threat of Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck.
Naturally, those three get all of the attention. And that makes sense, because sacks are sexy, and Pierre-Paul, Umenyiora and Tuck have combined for 36 of them in 19 games (extra amazing considering that Tuck has missed four and Umenyiora has missed seven). In New York’s last five games, that trio has accounted for 13 sacks. The team as a whole has had 20 during that stretch.
But because of that success, the men on the inside aren’t getting enough credit for what they’ve done of late. They’ve held three of their last six opponents to 105 yards or fewer on the ground. They held a hot Roy Helu to 54 yards, Frank Gore to 74 yards, Michael Turner to only 41 yards, Shonn Greene to 58 and Felix Jones to just 30. A run defense that took a lot of heat for surrendering nearly five yards per rush through November has given up only 4.2 yards per carry since, which is below the league average and not too shabby for a team that makes its money rushing the passer.
A lot of the credit for that turnaround has to go to Chris Canty (who has also been a stellar pass rusher), Linval Joseph and Rocky Bernard. The super-powerful Joseph is young and athletic enough to make plays like few big defensive tackles in the league, and he’s really stepped it up down the stretch this year. Canty and Bernard are vets who get the job done.
It doesn’t hurt that Pierre-Paul is athletic and versatile enough to make significant contributions as a run defender, and those ends probably deserve some (more) credit for the fact that they’re often all on the field together on passing downs, with no support from the big bruisers. But bring everyone together and you have quite possibly the scariest defensive line in football.
The Pats make this interesting, because their line has been getting constant pressure and shutting down backs in these playoffs, but the Giants’ line has still been better for longer in both respects.