Green Bay Packers receiver Jordy Nelson makes a catch past New York Giants cornerback Will Blackmon late in the fourth quarter of the Dec. 4, 2011, game at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. The Giants' pass defense isn't as good as the 2007 squad that won the Super Bowl. / Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette
Some of the comparisons between the Super Bowl champion New York Giants of 2007 and this season are legitimate in important ways.
Both teams were built around a talented and deep defensive line. The coach and quarterback are the same, and like 2007, this year’s Giants seem to be peaking at the end of an up-and-down regular season, which sets them up for a possible playoff run.
But the similarities don’t hold up across the board, most notably, in the secondary.
“The 2007 Giants played better pass defense,” said a scout from a team in the NFC East Division this week.
The Packers nevertheless will be hosting a Giants team in the NFC divisional round of the playoffs on Sunday that appears more talented than its 10-7 record suggests and that after its 24-2 win over the Atlanta Falcons in the wild-card round of the playoffs last week is hitting the road with the same confidence it had while winning the Super Bowl as a No. 5 seed in ’07. That ’07 run included a stunning upset win over the Packers at Lambeau Field in the NFC championship game.
The Giants, like the Packers, have 16 players on their roster from that championship game. They can’t live off that game — the teams have met twice in the last 13 months, and the Packers won both — but the holdovers are trying to conjure that ’07 vibe.
“One thing I’d like to pick up from ’07 is that ‘Road Warrior’ mentality,” defensive lineman Justin Tuck said, as quoted by the New York Daily News. “When going against a team on the road it just seemed like we didn’t miss a beat (in ’07).”
Moreover, these Giants, like in ’07, appear to have gained great confidence from an unlikely source, a late-season defeat against a top team. In ’07, the Giants played one of their best games in a 38-35 loss to the New England Patriots that finished the Patriots’ undefeated regular season; this season, the Giants lost on Dec. 4 by the same 38-35 score to the Packers, who improved to 12-0 that day with a field goal as time expired.
“I think we played better than OK (in that game),” safety Antrel Rolle told reporters in New York this week.
Said quarterback Eli Manning: “We know we can make some big plays and do some things offensively.”
The Giants have turned over about two-thirds of their roster from that ’07 championship game but still have several key players. Among them are Manning, right guard Chris Snee, left tackle David Diehl, running back Ahmad Bradshaw, running back Brandon Jacobs, defensive end Osi Umenyiora, Tuck, and cornerback Corey Webster.
Their best players gone from ’07 are receiver Plaxico Burress, who was a difference maker in the NFC championship game (11 receptions for 154 yards), receiver Amani Toomer, defensive end Michael Strahan and cornerback R.W. McQuarters.
The Giants have replaced some of them with equal or better talent. At receiver, neither Hakeem Nicks (6-1, 208) nor Victor Cruz (6-0, 204) has Burress’ size (6-5, 232) to dominate on jump balls like Burress did against the Packers’ Al Harris in the ’07 championship. But they have combined for more receptions (158 to 149) and yards per catch (17.3 to 12.3) than Burress and Toomer, who played in every game in ’07.
At defensive end, Jason Pierre-Paul has exploded in his second season (16˝ sacks) and is a better player than the ’07 Strahan, who was 36 and had nine sacks in his final NFL season.
Jacobs at age 29 isn’t as good as he was at 25 in ’07, and Webster and McQuarters were part of a better secondary in ’07. This year, the starting cornerback opposite Webster is Aaron Ross, who was a rookie in ’07 and is expected to play this week after sustaining a head injury last Sunday against the Falcons. Webster has had a solid season, but the Giants miss Terrell Thomas, who probably was their best cover man and saw his 2011 season end with a torn ACL in the preseason.
In their nickel defense, the Giants’ coverage problems get worse. They move Rolle from safety to nickel cornerback, where he’s only OK, and replace him at safety with Deon Grant, who never was fast and at age 32 is a liability in coverage.
The Giants generally match Webster with the opponent’s best receiver, so he’ll probably be covering Greg Jennings most of the time Sunday. If they help Ross with a safety over the top against Jordy Nelson, the Packers still have the quality in the passing game to attack with tight end Jermichael Finley and receivers James Jones, Randall Cobb and Donald Driver.
Rating them solely on statistics, the Giants finished this regular season ranked No. 29 in passing yards allowed. In ’07, they were No. 11.
“(Ross) is a weak spot,” a scout said. “(The Giants’ secondary) can’t hold up down after down after down. Where the Giants get you is if (the quarterback) holds the ball, they can put pressure on you.”
The Giants, in fact, can camouflage their shortcomings in their back seven when their defensive line plays like it did last week against Atlanta. Tuck and Umenyiora missed games and were diminished by injuries at times this season, and when the rush was less effective, the Giants gave up big passing yardage — Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw for 369 yards and a 106.2 passer rating in the teams’ Dec. 4 matchup at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.
The Giants’ defensive line is healthier six weeks later — Umenyiora (nine sacks in 12 games) didn’t play in that first meeting because of an ankle injury — and Tuck (five sacks) has been better in recent weeks after being slowed by several injuries.
In that last meeting against the Packers, Pierre-Paul had a huge day even though he had no sacks (eight pressures and three quarterback hits) against left tackle Marshall Newhouse. Tuck (6-5, 274) starts at defensive end but moves inside on passing downs. The Giants often play four defensive ends on passing downs by also using Dave Tollefson (five sacks) as an inside rusher.
The Packers appear set to start 35-year-old Chad Clifton at left tackle in his first full game since returning from hamstring and back injuries that sidelined him for 10 games.
“That could be a bit of a problem,” another scout said. “If you’re not ready for (Pierre-Paul), he has some snap in his upper body — for a guy with a long body, he has some snap. I have a feeling Green Bay is not going to put Clifton alone out there blocking that guy by himself.
“I think Green Bay will win the game, but the problem will be if the Giants can make them throw the ball a lot. They have the two guys on the outside and then Tuck, three guys you have to account for. They can rush the passer.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.