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Super Bowl XLVI: Nickle and Diming

Greg Knopping wrote an article yesterday that asked whether Julian Edelman could be trusted playing slot cornerback this weekend in the Super Bowl versus the New York Giants.

By the looks of the poll results, it would seem that most people think Sterling Moore is the best choice.

The bigger question that ties into Edelman's value in this game is how the Patriots will approach their nickle and sub-packages in general. Leading into this season, I wrote that I believed the Patriots were building towards a 4-man defensive line in order to make their sub-packages more successful.

Well, the move was not successful. Even though the Patriots are in the Super Bowl this year, it is not because they have an overall better team than they had in the 2010-2011 season. Whereas the team rallied from deficits to conclude the last few games this year, they were hitting their stride in the last quarter of 2010-2011 and held 3 of their last 4 opponents to a score or less. Tom Brady has had a better passing season, and Andre Carter definitely had a renaissance at the defensive end position, but it's fair to say both our rushing offense and defense in general has taken a step back from last year-with the exception of their playoff performances, which have exhibited a mixture of grizzled veterans and emerging playmakers.

Before the playoffs began, I outlined how the Patriots had a great shot at making the Super Bowl because their opponents in the AFC had offenses that were rushing-attack-oriented. While the Patriots had terrible passing defense all year, the front seven lined up in a 3-4 base is highly suited to stop the ground game- case in point being their performances against Tim Tebow, Willis McGahee, and most recently Ray Rice.

New England didn't have to contend with the likes of New Orleans or Green Bay, so it's impossible to know how the Patriots would have stacked up against those teams in the Super Bowl. Seeing as they allowed Joe Flacco to throw for 310 yards and 2 touchdowns, it's easy to extrapolate a much better day for Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and unfortunately our next opponent- Elisha Manning and the New York Giants.

With a proven passer like Manning, and his trio of weapons at receiver- Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz, and Mario Manningham- the Patriots are going to spend ample amounts of time in sub-packages, so it's imperative that they find the right mixture. I'm not talking about a mixture of JAGs that are capable of bending-but-not-breaking, because the Super Bowl needs playmakers. The Patriots are going to need to assemble a secondary that is capable of breaking up passes, not giving up 50/50 balls, and holding down Nicks and Cruz on 3rd and long situations.

This isn't to say that the Giants will spend the entire game with 3 receivers on the field, but Tom Coughlin is a former receiver coach and far from a fool. If Ray Rice is limited to less than 70 yards, Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs aren't likely to see better results. I expect that the Giants will run early in the game to establish a playaction later in the game, but if they aren't seeing any success, they will likely challenge the Patriots lowly passing defense. This could be a problem.

A few days away from XLVI, all we can do is contemplate what rotation the Patriots will use in their sub-package. Will they go with a 4-2 front, or a 3-3 front when they have 5 defensive backs on the field? I think it comes down to a question of down, distance, and what's working.

The biggest drawback to having to take out a linebacker or lineman is that those positions are our deepest and most talented of the entire defense. What makes the Patriots 3-4 successful is having the ability to rotate Kyle Love, Brandon Deaderick, Shaun Ellis, Gerard Warren, and last but best Big Vince Wilfork in and out and keep them fresh. On the other hand, the linebacking corps of Mark Anderson, Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, and Rob Ninkovich all have different skillsets but are all impact players.

That all being said, it's hard to anticipate what kind of rotation Bill Belichick has planned. If he chooses to have four ‘backers in the game with two conventional lineman, it makes the defense faster but also more susceptible to getting outmuscled with a run. I'm against this, because I truly believe that Gerard Warren and Shaun Ellis, who have 23 years of experience and 0 Super Bowl appearances thus far between them, will have all of the motivation in the world in case this is their last hurrah. Enough said on Wilfork, and Kyle Love has started alongside Vince all season. Deaderick is probably the best prototypical 3-4 defensive end on the roster (Wilfork plays end, but is a classic nose tackle).

More on our linebackers and secondary after the jump

Mayo and Ninkovich are the best coverage linebackers on the team, so I suspect they'll play almost every down regardless of the formation. Brandon Spikes' is great at blowing guards and the center out of position when he blitzes, and this is a great asset for the interior line in collapsing Manning's pocket. Mark Anderson can probably be considered the best pass rusher on the roster. Between Brandon Spikes and Anderson, who is more likely to sacrifice reps? Seeing as Anderson also has the ability to play defensive end in either a 4-front or 3-front in pass-rushing situations, and played 71/72 snaps last week to Spikes' 52/72, it's more likely that Spikes' snaps will suffer.

On to the secondary. In the last few weeks, the Patriots have performed well (at least to their standards) with a base of McCourty/Arrington and Ihedigbo/Chung, moving McCourty to safety to bring in Edelman and Moore when they need a slot corner. Even though Edelman brings an intensity to the position, I'm not sure if guts and grit alone will allow him to keep up with Cruz or Manningham.

For this reason, the Patriots need to bring Antwuan Molden into the game, and trust his capability. Molden is the biggest corner currently on the roster at 6'1" and 200 lbs, running a 4.39 40-yard dash at his combine while posting a 37.5" vertical jump and 23 reps on the bench press (as much as some lineman).

When I bring size into the situation, it's because the Patriots are going to absolutely need someone to defend against Hakeem Nicks in 50/50 situations. New England has struggled against bigger receivers this season, in part because our better corners are around 5'10". As the saying goes in basketball, you can't teach height- and the Patriots have no frame of reference for how they can perform against Hakeem, as he was inactive in the first meeting against the Giants this season. Even though the Patriots play primarily zone defense, it's not out of the question that they may try matching up man to man.

It would be great if Nicks was the only problem to worry about, but Victor Cruz might be more dangerous. He's Wes Welker but with a greater range for Eli to target, and just as elusive. With Molden possibly holding down Nicks, New England's best cover corner in Sterling Moore might draw the task of matching up against Cruz. Moore has seemingly the best ball skills on the team, and he seems to play tightest to his assignment. He's a good physical cornerback, and his physicality might help limit Cruz.

This leaves Kyle Arrington. Coming off a really hot start to the season, Kyle has been an invisible man lately but is still one of the best corners on the Patriots. If Molden and Moore are already assigned to other players, Arrington could possibly match up against Mario Manningham. In this case, Julian Edelman would be an emergency substitute and also on the field in dime packages.

This is all theoretical, because New England rarely strays from zone coverage and usually keeps their cornerbacks to one side for an entire game. In that case, it's a tossup between Arrington and Moore between who plays the slot. But if we weren't leaving every stone unturned, what kind of Super Bowl hype week would this be?

How do you think the Patriots will approach the Giant's trident of a passing attack?