INDIANAPOLIS -- One of the constant themes that we've heard in the two weeks leading up to Super Bowl XLVI is that both teams are "better." From a Patriots perspective, it's not hard to see why. The team has won ten straight games and is peaking at the right time, especially on the defensive side of the ball. And while we keep hearing about these improvements, no one has really gone into detail about what they are on the defensive side of the ball. Today, I will tackle that question by providing five "reasons" that the Patriots defense is different than the defense that fell apart against the Giants in the final minutes nearly three months ago:
5. Brandon Spikes is Back
When Patriots middle linebacker Brandon Spikes went down in the third quarter against the New York Giants, it changed the entire game. Spikes was an intimidating force, blowing up run plays and even making a big impact in the Giants passing game. And up until that point, the Giants had exactly zero points. Zero. Of course, after Spikes went down, the Giants put up 24 points in the second half. And while Spikes' absence wasn't the sole reason for the Patriots poor fourth quarter defense, it certainly had an impact. When Spikes is healthy, the Patriots defense is at its best. And right now, Brandon Spikes is healthy.
4. Devin McCourty Playing Better
Against the Giants in week nine, Devin McCourty was still in his sophomore "slump." But Devin McCourty is not the same player that Eli Manning victimized at times in that Giants game. In fact, since week 15 against Denver, McCourty has been playing excellent football (getting solid snaps at CB while playing some S as well). In the last five games, McCourty has been targeted 24 times. Just 8 of those targets have resulted in completions, and none of them have resulted in touchdowns. McCourty has also intercepted two passes in that time frame.
3. New Role Players Stepping Up, Personnel Has Changed
Since that week nine game, the Patriots have had new role players step up on the defensive side of the ball. Gerard Warren is making a real impact along the defensive line, Sterling Moore has become a capable cover cornerback, and Shaun Ellis is finally developing a role on the team. In addition, linebackers such as Gary Guyton and Tracy White, who struggled against the Giants, are no longer in the rotation - they have been replaced by the likes of Dane Fletcher, who is finally healthy after undergoing several thumb surgeries.
Final two reasons after the jump!
2. The 3-4 has replaced the 4-3
In the playoffs, the Patriots have replaced the 4-3 defense, which was their primary base defense most of the season, with the 3-4. The results have been outstanding. The team has shut down two of the games best rushing offenses (Denver and Baltimore) and have been getting more pressure on quarterbacks from the base package. While the Patriots may be running more sub-packages than base defense against the Giants tomorrow, there's no question that the 3-4 has given this unit a spark, and it should be reflected in the team's Super Bowl XLVI performance.
1. Personnel Very Different
At the end of the Giants game, the Patriots were without middle linebacker Brandon Spikes and without safeties Patrick Chung and James Ihedigbo. The team still had DT Albert Haynesworth and DB Phillip Adams playing significant snaps. Josh Barrett was a starter at safety - he's now on injured reserve. Sergio Brown had a poorly-timed pass interference play in the 4th quarter - he no longer plays in the base defense. Mark Anderson played only 19 snaps - he's now the team's top pass rusher. Gary Guyton played 30 snaps - he hasn't played a snap in the base defense in weeks. And, oh yeah, the Patriots defense, despite having made those changes and improved since the week nine game, held Eli Manning to just 250 yards and a 51.3% completion rate.
The Bottom Line: We can sit here all day (or you know, for the past two weeks) and debate whether or not Eli Manning and the Giants have the Patriots "number." All I know, is that in the NFL, you have to forget the past quickly. This is a completely different Patriots defense and a completely different game from week nine match-up. This is completely different match-up than Super Bowl XLII. While the Patriots will certainly have their hands full against an improved and hot Giants offense, they have reasons to be optimistic themselves.