Wide receiver Victor Cruz is one of the league's rising stars. From his underdog status (straight out of the University of Massachusetts), to his impressive production on the field, to his widely known Touchdown Salsa Dance in memory of his grandmother, there's a lot to like about Cruz. The only problem is that he's a receiver for the New York Giants.
Standing a 6-0, 205 lbs, Cruz isn't a dominating physical specimen. However, he runs a very respectable 4.47, has solid explosion out of the snap and out of his breaks, and is known for having one of the better body fakes in the league. So how can the Patriots go about defending him?
It starts with the slot. According to Pro Football Focus, Cruz has spent 45.8% of his total snaps in the slot and has gained an impressive 1379 yards (77.5% of his total receiving yards) from the slot. Those yards are tops in the league, with the Patriots Wes Welker 2nd with 1290- and they are the only two slot receivers to break 750 yards this season. Cruz has one of the higher drop rates out of slot receivers, letting 12.8% of passes in his direction hit the ground. The Patriots will have to be physical with Cruz in order to prevent him from making the completion.
So who should square off against Cruz in the slot? I wouldn't put it past the 5-11, 200 lbs Julian Edelman to play at a high level. Edelman was noted as the defensive back who struggled during the Ravens final drive, but his total season numbers are actually towards the top of the league (although his snaps are considerably lower than others):
Julian Edelman: 125 defensive snaps, 10 targets, 7 receptions, 87 yards.
Rates (league rank/slot corner rank): 12.5 snaps/target (1st/1st), 17.85 snaps/reception (3rd/1st), 0.696 yards/snap (5th/1st)
Combine Cruz vs Edelman:
40: 4.47 vs 4.52 - Edge: Cruz
10 split: 1.56 vs 1.52 - Edge: Edelman
3 Cone: 6.96 vs 6.62 - Edge: Edelman
20 Shuttle: 4.17 vs 3.92 - Edge: Edelman
Edelman has the physical capabilities to keep up with Cruz and, when he's been covering the slot, he's had the on-field performance to match up with some of the best corners in the league. Maybe the Patriots play someone else in the slot; I wouldn't be surprised if it was Edelman.
Let's look at how the Patriots can slow Cruz after the jump!
I selected footage from the Giants vs 49ers NFCCG where the 49ers were demolished by Cruz in the first half, but were able to recover in time for a success second half stop on Cruz. The 49ers reviewed film on the Redskins vs Giants game, where Cruz was held to 5 receptions and 44 yards for one of his lowest outputs on the season. Here's how the Patriots can copy the game plan:
Here's the play breakdown.
Giants: Hakeem Nicks is on the near side of the field, with Victor Cruz in the slot. Mario Manningham is on the far side of the field. The blue arrows signifies the tight end with the potential as an outlet. Ahmad Bradshaw is in the backfield as the blitz pick-up and potential outlet.
The Green X signifies where Cruz typically makes his break, whether it's inside (usually) or outside.
49ers: Lined up in the 3-3-5, one of the LBs is lined up showing blitz, but is standing with potential to drop into coverage. The defense is lined up in a Cover Two Man formation with the two safeties responsible for the deep halves of the field and the cornerbacks and coverage linebackers are in man coverage. The far side outside linebacker drifts into the flat to deter the linebacker from breaking free, while the middle linebacker (white arrow) is spying the running back in case Bradshaw tries to break into the open field as an outlet.
The defensive line is heavy on the nearside (the side with Cruz) and is able to collapse the pocket and force Eli Manning to slide away from the pressure and, most importantly, away from Cruz and Nicks. Manning would have to throw across his body to reach Cruz, which is a risky throw every single time.
The 49ers defensive line creates pressure and collapses the entire right side of Manning's pocket. Both 49ers safeties prevent a deep throw to any of the receivers. The tight end is engaged by defensive end Justin Smith, which eliminates another outlet, while the 49ers linebackers do a good job of containing Bradshaw.
The green cone coming from Cruz is his vision. If he wants to make a break outside, it's right into Nicks and a 49ers defensive back and Manning won't want to make that throw with the right side of his pocket collapsing. Also, the slot corner on Cruz is doing a great job of staying on Cruz's inside shoulder.
By staying on Cruz's inside shoulder, it forces Cruz either to the outside or up the field. If Cruz wants to run outside, the slot corner is in his back pocket and provides a barrier between Manning and Cruz. Also, the outside wide receiver is in the way and can deter Manning from making that throw. If Cruz wants to run up the field, the deep safety is in position for the coverage.
With the pressure in his face, Manning has to look to the left side, which leaves both Nicks and Cruz out of the play.
No receiver is open on the left side and Manning is left to be sacked. Cruz shakes his way into the middle of the field, but it's far too late to make a play. If the defensive line can do its job, Manning won't have the time to wait for Cruz to break free.
So what can the Patriots learn?
By pressuring the pocket from the side where Cruz is in the slot, Manning will be forced to look towards the other side of the field or, at the very least, towards the middle.
By placing the slot defender on the inside shoulder of Cruz and being physical at the line, Cruz will be forced outside or up the field. Either direction is out of Manning's vision.
Deep safeties are crucial in preventing a desperation toss up by Manning and are able to deter Manning from making throws in the first place.
Look for the Patriots to try and bracket Cruz for most of the game. Whether the slot defender is Edelman, Nate Jones, Kyle Arrington, or Pat Chung, they have to force Cruz to the outside and away from Manning's throwing range.
If the Patriots can control Cruz, they have a tremendous chance of controlling the game.
Also, for good measure:
Wide Receiver Tendencies:
Mario Manningham - Downfield threat.
Hakeem Nicks - Mid-range threat.
Victor Cruz - Slot threat. Look for Cruz to try to run to the middle of the field.
Manning's Typical Progressions:
First Read: Tight End/Cruz in the slot/Nicks to the outside/Manningham deep
Second Read: Check down to Bradshaw or a tight end in the flat
Third Read: Cruz will be free styling down the field and Manning will try to throw to wherever he is heading
Hopefully the Patriots can contain the Giants passing attack.