SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – When the Patriots offensive line takes the field Sunday, they'll probably feel like they're looking in a mirror. While the Giants front four probably receives more attention than New England's Bearded Brothers, the units' styles are very similar.
Consider Dan Koppen's assessment of the New York defensive line. "They're very good together. They work well together. They know what one guy is going to do and they can play well off of that. They just have really talented football players over there."
Those words could just as easily have come from Michael Strahan in discussing the Patriots front. Even though the Patriots group now features three Pro Bowlers in Matt Light, Logan Mankins and Koppen, it remains a somewhat unheralded group that succeeds largely as a result of teamwork and preparation as much as for the individual ability of its members.
They'll be going against a similar unit in the Giants front four. While Strahan has been one of the league's stars for years now, and Osi Umenyiora is considered an excellent pass rusher, New York's group is about much more than a couple of individuals.
"It's a big challenge. They have to have one of the best defensive lines in the league," Mankins said. "Strahan has to be one of the best d-linemen ever to play in the league. You have Osi, and [Justin] Tuck comes in and plays everywhere and does a lot of good things for them. Then you still have [Barry] Cofield and [Fred] Robbins inside that are very strong players and they're playing really well right now."
"They know how to play well and they play physical football for 60 minutes," right tackle Nick Kaczur added. "They're very athletic. They know how to work edges. They pose all kinds of challenges."
It all adds up to a front that produced the most sacks in the NFL in 2007. Umenyiora led the way with 13, but he was not alone. Tuck, the versatile third-year player out of Notre Dame, also hit double figures with 10. Strahan finished with nine while Robbins chipped in with 5.5, a solid number for an interior lineman.
New York finished with 53 sacks overall, and that was despite the absence of Mathias Kiwanuka, who was lost for the season early after posting 4.5 sacks. It's a group that is capable of creating pressure without necessarily blitzing, and the Patriots will need to be sharp in order to prevent the Giants from hounding Tom Brady for much of the evening.
"There's always a lot of pressure. When you get to this point in the year there's more pressure than ever," Light said. "For us we have to come out and play a very smart football game and know what they're doing, recognize what they're doing and we have to go out there and execute our game plan. That's not much different from any other week, but we obviously understand it's going to be intensified this week. One mistake could mean the game."
According to the guys doing the protecting, it's the Giants versatility that creates the problems. Cofield (6-4, 306) and Robbins (6-4, 317) are much quicker than their imposing figures suggest. Their athleticism inside, coupled with their size, will put pressure on the interior of the line. And Tuck can line up inside or out, sometimes moving around before the snap to create even more confusion.
"They have an experienced, tough group of guys," guard Stephen Neal said. "Inside they have a couple of big, powerful guys who can move the front of the pocket and outside they can collapse the pocket. So we're going to have to do a great job of making sure Brady can move around how he needs to and find the guys. They just have an experienced group of guys that can slow you down offensively."
The Patriots didn't allow that to happen in the first meeting between the clubs a little more than a month ago. Brady was sacked just once that night, although he was pressured on several occasions and another sack was nullified by a Giants penalty.
New York will need to apply more heat to Brady this time around if it plans on pulling the upset. Brady had enough time to riddle the suspect Giants secondary to the tune of 32-of-42 passing for 356 yards and a pair of touchdowns, the latter the record-setting 65-yard bomb to Randy Moss that gave the Patriots the lead in the fourth quarter.
Considering that Neal and right tackle Nick Kaczur did not play in the first game, the Giants task figures to get even tougher. Russ Hochstein and Ryan O'Callaghan filled in and performed admirably as replacements, a fact that Neal joked may have been a factor in the Patriots success.
When asked how the line managed to perform so well in the first game, Neal didn't hesitate: "Probably the fact that I wasn't playing."