XLVI Preview: Linebackers

Not long ago, the linebacking corps was the Giants’ weakest link. And come to think of it, that was also probably the case with the Patriots’ depleted group of linebackers earlier this season.

But right now — and I guess this makes sense for two teams playing their best football of the year — both units are peaking.

Both teams are defending the run and applying pressure on opposing quarterbacks with more success than at any other point this season. And while some of the credit for New England’s dominance against the run has to go to Vince Wilfork and the line, and a major chunk of the Giants’ dominance in the pass rush has to be credited to their three-headed, sack-happy trio of defensive ends, the linebackers have played important roles as well.

A lot of it has to do with improved health. For New England, Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes only started together in three of the Patriots’ 16 regular-season games. But those two are together again and have combined for 32 tackles as the Pats have bottled up superb backs Willis McGahee and Ray Rice thus far in the playoffs. Spikes, 24, and Mayo, 25, have been awesome together this January — expect them to control Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs throughout the game.

And it seems that Rob Ninkovich has really benefited from being able to spread his pass-rushing wings opposite Mark Anderson on the strong side. Ninkovich has had easily his best season as a pro — he has 6.5 sacks in his last nine games. Anderson is also playing the best football of his career as sort of a hybrid end/outside linebacker — he has four sacks in his last five games.

New York’s improved play against the run correlated almost perfectly with the return of Chase Blackburn, who basically came out of retirement when injuries to Michael Boley and Mark Herzlich in November caused the team to panic. It’s amazing that a versatile guy like Blackburn stayed unsigned for so long, because this was a front seven already shorthanded due to preseason injuries to Clint Sintim and Jonathan Goff. Rookies Greg Jones and Jacquian Williams had sometimes looked in over their heads while getting increased reps in a diminished unit. Both are still liabilities, but the pressure isn’t as high with veterans like Blackburn, Boley and Mathias Kiwanuka receiving the lion’s share of the defensive snaps.

Kiwanuka is like the Giants’ version of Ninkovich, except he has a more decorated résumé. He’s really New York’s only pass-rushing presence who stands up, but you’d be surprised how much he poses problems for defenses that have to pick their poison between Kiwanuka and defensive ends like Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck.

Herzlich, who’s also a rookie but certainly didn’t look like one as a key contributor and spot starter earlier in the year, hasn’t played since November due to an ankle injury. It’ll be interesting to see how Tom Coughlin and Perry Fewell juggle their linebackers if Herzlich is able to play on Super Bowl Sunday (and he probably will be). But that’s not a bad problem to have, and I wouldn’t expect the coaching staff to mess with a good thing.

And let’s face it: the performance this linebacking corps delivers next Sunday could have a huge bearing on the who wins the Lombardi Trophy. That’s because Boley and Blackburn will likely be forced to cover New England super-tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez early in their routes.

But that’s one big difference from that regular-season matchup. In that game, Gronk and Hernandez had 12 catches, 135 yards and two touchdowns — but Blackburn wasn’t even on the roster, and those three rookies were forced to play rather significant roles.

It’ll be a different story for the Giants next week. But Mayo was just coming back from injury then and Spikes was hurt in that game. With that duo healthy and hot now, the Pats are also in much better shape at the second level.

Edge: Patriots.