Here are 10 matchups to keep an eye on in Sunday’s game between the Patriots and the Giants at Gillette Stadium:
The Patriots offensive line against the Giants pass rush: If you stop reading this story after this graph, it’s cool with me, because this is the matchup that’s going to tell the game. The Giants are going to try and get pressure, and the Patriots have to figure out a way to slow them down. If they can’t, New England is going to lose this game. The Giants are the best team in the league when it comes to getting after the quarterback -- they have 26 sacks. Jason-Pierre Paul (8.5 sacks, but may be at less than his best on Sunday because of a reported concussion), Osi Umenyiora (6 sacks) and Mathias Kiwanuka (3.5 sacks) all must be accounted for when the Patriots’ break their huddle. New England’s offensive line had a very good start to its season, but has had issues as of late. (Last week was arguably the worst performance of the season with four false starts, four quarterback hits allowed and three sacks given up.) Look for lots of extra help in the form of an extra tight end (Dan Gronkowski) and in the backfield (expect Kevin Faulk to play more this week than he did last week, as he remains New England’s best option in blitz pickup at the running back spot).
Tom Brady against Perry Fewell: A subset of the above matchup, but nonetheless intriguing. The Patriots’ quarterback and the Giants’ defensive coordinator will match wits in this one -- figure that Fewell will try and dial up as much pressure on Brady as he can with the four-man front. How will Brady and the New England offense try and combat that? Look for screens, reverses and misdirections -- and no deep dropbacks by Brady -- as the Patriots try and use New York’s aggressiveness against them.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis against the Giants’ run defense: The thinking here is that Green-Ellis was considerably more banged up entering last Sunday’s game against the Steelers than we were initially led to believe. How else can you explain the fact that New England’s No. 1 option in the running game (and who led the team in overall offensive touches entering the game) had only five carries for nine yards against a relatively weak team against the run? If healthy, Green-Ellis should get an opportunity against the Giants, one of the worst teams in the league against the run (they allow an average of 130.1 rushing yards per game, 28th in the NFL). Something to look for according to Nuggetpalooza, the Giants’ run defense cannot stop anyone on first down. New York opponents have run 106 times on first down for 600 yards, for a league worst 5.66 yards allowed per carry.
Wes Welker against Antrel Rolle: Have Ike Taylor and Orlando Scandrick discovered the best way to slow down Welker? In his last two games, the wide receiver has combined for 12 catches for 84 yards and a touchdown -- or, in other words, almost half of what he had in one game earlier this season against the Bills. Taylor and Scandrick have gotten physical with him, bumping him and not letting him get into his routes. It’s clear Rolle has been watching film. He talked about how impressed he was with the job that the Steelers’ pass defense did against New England, saying that Pittsburgh didn’t double team Welker. “They just lined up and kicked their a--. Bottom line,” Rolle said. “That’s what they did. They stayed on them the whole game -- not just Wes Welker, everyone. They played great ball.” (Welker offered his take on Rolle here.)
Aaron Hernandez against Kenny Phillips: Whether it’s the knee injury, the result of defensive schemes designed to slow him down or New England’s offensive game plan, Hernandez dropped off the radar last week, catching a season-low two passes in the loss to the Steelers. His fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski carried the load last week against the Steelers (a team-high seven catches), but for the New England offense to be clicking on all cylinders, it’ll need Hernandez back at full strength. Look for the Patriots to move Hernandez around as much as possible before the snap in hopes of finding a favorable matchup, but the Giants could take their chances with Phillips, a safety who has a similar body type to Hernandez -- the Giants’ defensive back is 6-foot-2, 217 pounds, while Hernandez is 6-foot-1, 240 pounds.
Brandon Jacobs against the Patriots run defense: It doesn’t look like Ahmad Bradshaw is going to play, which means the Giants are going to turn to their occasional cranky backup Jacobs (42 carries, 126 yards, two touchdowns). Jacobs complained that he wasn’t getting enough action earlier in the season. Even in the best of situations. New York does not run the ball effectively. The Giants have 599 rushing yards this season (30th in the league), an average of 85.6 yards per game (30th in the league) and an average 3.2 yards per carry (31st in the league). Without Bradshaw, those numbers could be even less. For all its troubles defending the pass, the Patriots’ defense remain fair-to-good when it comes to stopping the run, having allowed an average of 101 yards per game (ninth in the league), 707 total rushing yards (sixth in the league) and an average of 4.3 yards per carry (18th in the league).
Vince Wilfork and Albert Haynesworth against the interior of the Giants offensive line: We wrote about it earlier this week -- if Haynesworth gets healthy, his presence could have a domino effect on the rest of the New England defense. If Haynesworth plays consistently on passing downs, the Patriots have proven that they only have to rush four to get pressure on the quarterback. And if they are dropping seven back into coverage consistently on passing downs, they’ll have more than enough bodies to flood the middle of the field and make it tougher on an opposing passing game. (A lot of ifs, there with Haynesworth, but as they say around Foxboro, it is what it is.) This New England defense has had its problems, but the grouping up front remains the least of its worries. Pass protection has been an occasional issue for the Giants this season, but the New York offensive line recently got Chris Snee back after a concussion, and have been middle-of-the-pack this season, having allowed 15 sacks this year, 21st in the league.
Eli Manning against the Patriots’ pass defense: This is not the same guy who was tossing up pick after pick the last few seasons. Manning -- who has 13 touchdowns, five picks and a 65 percent completion rate -- must now be considered one of the better quarterbacks in the league for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that he’s much better at ball control and not forcing turnovers than he was in previous years. (For more on his evolution as a quarterback, check out my story from earlier in the week here.) Even if the Giants are missing their top receiver in Hakeem Nicks (he didn’t practice this week and is a question mark for Sunday), chances are good that Manning will throw as often as possible, looking for Mario Manningham (24 catches, 290 yards, one touchdown) and Victor Cruz (28 catches, 497 yards, four touchdowns).
Jake Ballard against Gary Guyton: After doing an excellent job defending tight ends through the first six games of the season, the Patriots were gashed early last week by Pittsburgh tight end Heath Miller, who caught seven passes for 85 yards against New England’s zone coverage. New England was able to make the adjustments to slow down Miller, but it will be interesting to see if they’ll be able to stop Ballard, who is Manning’s third option in the passing game with 19 catches for 328 yards and two touchdowns. Guyton is the best option of a group of linebackers that have struggled when it comes to defending the pass this season. (According to Nuggetpalooza, in 2011 Patriots linebackers have been targeted 74 times and defensed just three passes.)
The Patriots defensive backs against their memory of last week: To be a successful defensive back in this league, you need to have a short memory, and the New England safeties and corners must collectively shake off last week and the 365 passing yards from Ben Roethlisberger. One area where they can certainly improve is yards after the catch -- according to Nuggetpalooza, the Patriots allowed Steelers’ receivers to gain 199 yards after catches last Sunday, the fourth most against New England since they began tracking the stat in 1992. Of those yards, 180 of those came on short completions, an average of 5.8 per catch.