Defense for the New York Giants starts with the front four.
Stopping the run and forcing the opposition into passing situations will let loose possibly the best group of pass rushers in the NFL. It was the formula the Giants used in 2008 in pounding Tom Brady and stunning the previously unbeaten New England Patriots in the Super Bowl — and the game plan hasn't changed for next weekend's title game rematch in Indianapolis.
The Giants (12-7) want Brady on edge every time he passes. Throw a ball. Expect to be hit. Even the threat of being hit might be enough to influence a play. And that just might be the difference with a ring at stake.
"Look at '07. That was pretty much the reason why we were in the game, because we kept him off-rhythm," defensive end and captain Justin Tuck said. "Obviously he is the main reason why (they) are successful. The way to kill the snake is to take off his head. The way to kill an offense as potent as that one is making sure you take care of Brady. Our defensive front will put a lot of pressure on itself to make sure that we do our best to get after him."
The Giants finished tied for third in the NFL in the regular season with 48 sacks, including 11 in victories over the Jets and Cowboys in winning the NFC East title. They have added nine more in their three playoff wins.
What makes the pass rush so formidable is that it's not only four guys. The Giants' line is eight deep. All Pro Jason Pierre-Paul led the team with 16 1/2 sacks in his second season, while Osi Umenyiora added nine in only nine games. Tuck and backup defensive end Dave Tollefson had five apiece, Chris Canty added four and fellow tackle Linval Joseph had two. There's also linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka, who had 3 1/2 sacks playing as a lineman in passing situations.
Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell says not only does his line get to the quarterback, they get on each other. When the linemen hold their meeting, it's more than a review of the game or practice — it's trash-talking time.
"We compete amongst each other and if Justin gets a sack, I want two," Pierre-Paul said. "If I want two, then Osi wants three. Basically you can say that we are greedy but in a good way, to help our team out. We try to get there quick enough to help our secondary cover better and try to get to the quarterback as fast as we can."
Kiwanuka said the presence of so many pass rushers pushes everyone.
"We have a number of guys, you look at the roster, Dave Tollefson is a guy who came on and had a strong year and played very well," Kiwanuka said. "From top to bottom, in that room, we have guys who could be starting on other teams. We're just not fighting for sacks. We are fighting for playing time as well. Everybody want to be the guy but at the end of the day, it's about the win and that's what also is important."
Brady knows what to expect. In the Giants' 17-14 Super Bowl win in Arizona, he absorbed five sacks and was hit nine times, although the Giants insist the hit total was a lot higher.
"They can rush the passer. There's no doubt about that," Brady said. "In playing them before, you understand that they can — they stripped sacked us on our own 10-yard line or something like that when we played them last. They get a lot of turnovers. They put a lot of pressure on you with their front four. They have a big, physical group that plays really well together. You watch them play against the 49ers; they played a great game defensively. They gave up two points against Atlanta which was on a defensive score. They're a great football team, they have a great defense. Every time we play them, it's, you talk about their defense, their pass rush."
One thing that separates the Giants' pass rush from other teams is its speed. In passing situations, New York many times lines up Pierre-Paul, Tuck, Umenyiora and Kiwanuka — or four defensive ends. They bring a quickness that Patriots guards Logan Mankins and Brian Waters usually don't see.
And that could put the head of the snake in danger.
"Hey, if that's the analogy that they're taking then that's what it is," New England receiver Deion Branch said. "I think our job is to go out and protect our guy, protect the snake so he doesn't get his head cut off. But, hey, that's Justin. He's a great player. Trust me, we truly respect that guy, respect what he's done for the league, what he's doing for his team, but we can't worry about that part. We have to worry about what we're doing and the snake will do his part."
Brady does have something else to worry about. Not only are the Giants getting to the passer, New York's secondary has settled down after a season of miscommunication. Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers and Alex Smith frequently had to go to second and third options in recent weeks because the secondary took away the primary receiver, giving the line more time to get to the quarterback.
And the Giants intend to get to Brady again.
Umenyiora remembers talking to Michael Strahan at breakfast on the morning of Super Bowl XLII.
"Strahan was just talking, being loud, his usual self, whatever, and I'm usually the one who is joking around, but I was dead serious that morning," Umenyiora said. "I was like, 'Stray, in order for us to win this game we're going to have to get to the quarterback, we're going to have to really get to him.'
"He was like, 'Yeah, yeah, whatever.' I made him put his fork down, and I was like, 'I'm dead serious, man, we have to do this.' And he was like, 'All right, cool,' and he stopped joking around then and he was all business and we went out there and took care of it."
Umenyiora has that same feeling, even a sense of anger that the Giants are once again the underdogs despite beating the Patriots 24-20 in New England in November.
"Most people picking this game will say they're going to win this game, but we know at the end of the day we're going to have to get to him as often as we can if we're going to win this football game. And that's exactly what we plan on doing," Umenyiora said.