On paper, the New England Patriots shouldn’t be here. Not with the NFL’s 31st ranked pass defense that allowed nearly 300 yards per game. For much of the season, throwing against the Pats secondary was as simple as playing monkey in the middle. The same Patriots secondary that allowed Joe Flacco to throw for over 300 yards in the AFC Championship Game was fortunate he didn’t throw for more. Flacco actually misfired on multiple downfield throws to wide open receivers. Against a better quarterback, New England would have been lit up for far more than 400 yards based on the atrocious coverage they displayed in the AFC Championship Game.
On Super Bowl Sunday, they will face an obviously superior quarterback in New York’s Eli Manning. Manning threw for a team-record 4,933 yards thanks to a dangerous trio of receivers. The Giants began the season with Mario Manningham and Nicks as their primary targets but an injury to Manningham paved the way for Victor Cruz to emerge as a elite receiver in the slot. Cruz has been brilliant after a rookie season that was spent on injured reserve. This season, Cruz caught 82 passes for a team-record 1,536 yards. Nicks recorded 76 catches for nearly 1,20 yards.Most importantly, Nicks’ size makes him Manning’s best option in the red zone and will remind Belichick’s Patriots of their unsuccessful attempts at covering Plaxico Burress in Super Bowl XLII.
Meanwhile, Bill Belichick’s secondary is built more like the government’s Cash For Clunkers program than a Super Bowl-caliber defense. Cornerback Sterling Moore was an undrafted free agent that was signed as a practice squad in October. Moore returned the Patriots investment by making the most clutch defensive play of the Patriots season when he knocked the go-ahead touchdown catch from the arms of Ravens receiver, Lee Evans arms with 22 seconds seconds remaining. New England’s starting safety, James Ihedigbo, spent the past three seasons as a special teams player for the New York Jets but hasn’t recorded an interception in 14 games as the starter.
Another stitch in the Patriots secondary is Julian Edelman, a slot receiver, punt returner and ex-college quarterback who has been used extensively at corner. For much of the AFC Championship Game, Edelman was tasked with covering Anquan Boldin. Boldin burned the Patriots secondary and Edelman for six catches and 101 yards. Belichick has converted wide receivers to the secondary before and vice versa. Former linebacker Mike Vrabel became known as one of the Patriots most reliable end zone targets.
Most recently, Troy Brown was Belichick’s Swiss army knife and switched back and forth for 15 seasons between the Patriots primary option at receiver, punt returner and part-time defensive back. However, Mario Manningham is relishing the opportunity to torch Edelman on Super Bowl Sunday.
I hope he’s out there when we play them," Manningham said, according to the Boston Herald. "I don’t want to sound like that, but you know what I mean. To our advantage, I hope he’s out there."
"It’s a different stage," Manningham said. "This ain’t regular season. That ain’t your real position, so we’re going to try to expose you. It’s all or nothing now. That ain’t your position, this is the Super Bowl and we want you to play that position." Via ESPN New York
Need further proof of the Patriots patchwork secondary? Look no further than Devin McCourty. After a stellar Pro Bowl rookie season at cornerback in 2010 for the Patriots, the Pats first round pick was shifted to safety during the final week of the regular season after struggling at cornerback this season. Amidst the Patriots rag tag group of defensive backs is Kyle Arrington, who led the NFL with seven interceptions in 2011.
Giants receivers such as Mario Manningham may look down on the Patriots secondary but once they trot onto the field they’ll have to respect whatever athletes New England throws at them. When he’s given two weeks to scheme, there’s no telling what or whom Darth Belichick will throw at the Giants receivers on Super Bowl Sunday.