When the Giants' defense takes the field on Super Bowl Sunday against the offensive juggernaut that is the New England Patriots, it might look at first like a mismatch.
The Patriots' offense broke the NFL records for points and touchdowns during the regular season. It features league MVP Tom Brady, the NFL's best pair of wide receivers in Randy Moss and Wes Welker, a talented running back in Laurence Maroney, and three Pro Bowl offensive linemen in Matt Light, Logan Mankins, and Dan Koppen. It is, by many accounts, the best offense ever assembled.
And yet there will be at least one mismatch on Sunday that favors the Giants' defense. That will come when the Giants put Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora, and Justin Tuck on the field at the same time, a combination of three of the best pass-rushing defensive linemen in football that no offensive line — not even the Patriots' — can completely account for. Umenyiora had 13 sacks in the regular season, Tuck had 10, and Strahan had nine, making the Giants the only team in the NFL with three players among the league's top 20 in sacks.
One of the many wise moves that the Giants' defensive coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo, has made in this, his first year as the Giants' defensive coordinator, was the way he used the wealth of talent the Giants have at defensive end. Because the Giants had four defensive ends who could start on most teams, Spagnuolo moved two of them to other positions, rather than have them spend the bulk of their Sundays on the sideline.
That meant keeping Strahan and Umenyiora as the starters, moving Mathias Kiwanuka to linebacker and having Tuck learn to play defensive tackle in addition to his defensive end duties. Kiwanuka was a fine linebacker until he was lost for the season with an injury in November. But the real discovery has been Tuck at defensive tackle.
Although Tuck is still listed on the roster as a defensive end, he does most of his damage at tackle, generating a pass rush directly in the opposing quarterback's face and making it harder for the quarterback to step forward in the pocket to avoid the outside rush coming from Strahan and Umenyiora.
The Giants still list Barry Cofield and Fred Robbins atop their depth chart at defensive tackle. They are fine players who each outweigh the 274-pound Tuck by more than 30 pounds, and are stouter than Tuck against the run. But the only chance the Giants have of stopping the Patriots' offense is preventing Brady from setting up in the pocket and waiting for Moss and Welker to get open in the secondary. To stop Brady, the Giants need pressure not just from the outside, but from Tuck coming straight at him from the defensive tackle position. The Giants can get to Brady so much faster when Tuck is on the field that it's worth any trade-offs to their run defense.
The trade-offs are real, however. When the Giants played the Patriots at the end of the regular season, Tuck pressured Brady several times while lining up at defensive tackle, but the Patriots also had some key plays with runs in Tuck's direction. After the fourth-quarter touchdown that put the Patriots ahead for the last time, the Patriots' successful two-point conversion attempt was a run directly at Tuck, who was lined up at left defensive tackle. The Patriots' next touchdown, which essentially sealed the win, was also a run in Tuck's direction. In running situations, especially near the goal line, the Giants are better off with Cofield and Robbins on the field.
But the Giants didn't lose to the Patriots because of a couple of short-yardage runs; they lost because Brady completed 32 of 42 passes for 356 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions. It was primarily the passing game that the Patriots used to beat the Giants; it was primarily the passing game that the Patriots rode to their perfect 18–0 record, and it's primarily the passing game that the Giants' defense needs to stop in the Super Bowl.
That's where the advantage of playing Tuck at defensive tackle comes in. The Patriots are strong in the middle of their offensive line, with Mankins and Steve Neal at guard and Koppen at center, and Tuck won't be able to overpower any of the Patriots' linemen. But Tuck has the kind of quickness that centers and guards just aren't accustomed to playing against. Tuck has such a good first step that he can get across the line of scrimmage while the opposing offensive lineman is still getting out of his stance.
When the Giants played the Patriots a month ago, they sacked Brady just once, but they hit him as he was passing seven times. Those seven plays on which they were a split-second away from sacking Brady were the difference between achieving a monumental upset and giving the Patriots their historic 16th win. And that means the Giants' defense will spend this week looking for ways they can create mismatches that will make them a split-second faster.
Mr. Smith is a writer for FootballOutsiders.com.