Giants' defensive line is key to potential upset

CHANDLER, Ariz. -- They have the experience, the depth, the speed and the heft. Quite simply, the New York Giants' defensive line is better than the rest.

With Pro Bowl ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora coming off the edge and stalwart tackles Fred Robbins and Barry Coefield clogging up the middle, this elite unit is arguably the best in the league.

And if the Giants are to pull off one of the biggest upsets in league history by beating the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, the defensive line will likely have to play a prominent role.

"I know if we play poorly, we probably won't win," Coefield admitted. "We feel like if we have a big game up front that gives our team the best chance to win."

The greatest reason to believe why the line will come up big and possibly help produce a shocking victory is its versatility.

It is uniquely and effectively able to rush the passer and stop the run. This is of utmost importance against a Patriots offense that boasts one of the best passing attacks in NFL history and the postseason's leading rusher in Laurence Maroney (244 yards).

Strahan, Umenyiora and third-year player Justin Tuck are prototypical pass-rushing ends who have combined for 32 sacks this season -- the highest amount of any trio of teammates in the league.

In games when quarterback Tom Brady has been sacked fewer than two times, the Patriots are averaging a full touchdown more per game (38.5 points) than when he has been brought down at least twice (31).

In the Week 17 meeting between the teams, the Giants only got to Brady once and the result was a 38-point outburst by the Patriots.

They know they need to get more pressure this time around.

"Defensively, I think we did a couple of good things, but for the most part didn't play as well as we needed to play to win that football game," said Umenyiora. "They put up 38 points on us. I think we know we must get a lot more pressure on Tom Brady than we got in that game. We got some, but it wasn't enough."

A lot has changed since that regular-season finale, however. Backups have emerged, and the Giants have given up, on average, just 17 points a game in three playoff games.

With Dallas driving for a potential go-ahead touchdown in the final minutes of their divisional playoff win over the Cowboys, it was not Strahan or Umenyiora who was pressuring QB Tony Romo, but seldom-used reserve Dave Tollefson instead. He penetrated the line, forcing an errant pass by Romo, helping to stymie the pivotal drive. Just one week earlier, it was also Tollefson who jarred Tampa Bay quarterback Jeff Garcia with a big hit.

According to Tollefson, it is defensive line coach Mike Waufle who puts the players into a position to perform.

"The work environment that he puts us in is just conducive to us playing well because it's a fun environment," said Tollefson. "There's not a lot of stresses. This job in general is such a high-stress job, Waufle does a good job of coaching us, but also letting us do our own thing."

The primary beneficiary of the Giants' pass rush is the secondary. Numerous defensive backs credited the line for making their jobs that much easier.

Said CB Corey Webster: "They do all the work. We just sit there and try to ride their coattails."

Added safety Gibril Wilson: "We probably have the best D-Line in the league, Strahan, Tuck, Osi, those guys are awesome players and they make our jobs a little easier."

While the Giants' pass rush is undeniably a strength, their run defense is equally impressive.

As Tollefson noted, "A lot of people talk about our pass-rushing ability, but you gotta think that we're one of the best run-stopping teams in the NFL at the same time. We just like to hang our hat on not only that we can rush the passer, but we can do everything as a D-Line."

Waufle acknowledges that his team's run-stopping ability will be challenged against the red-hot Maroney. The second-year running back was an afterthought through much of 2007, but late in the season and in the playoffs he has broken out.

Maroney has averaged 110 rushing yards over the last five games, and he's coming off back-to-back 122-yard efforts in the playoffs. One could argue the Maroney is the biggest reason the Patriots are in the Super Bowl, not Brady.

"That challenge is there," said Waufle. "They're a very well-coached offensive line and execute really well, so the challenge is up there. So we're gonna have to stop the run and we're going to have to rush the passer."

To this point, nobody has succeeded in doing what Waufle proposes. The Patriots have run roughshod over the competition on their way to the league's first 18-0 record.

If anyone can pull off the impossible, though, it figures to be the Giants and their fired-up defensive line, which nearly got the job done in week 17.

"We're starving. 'Hungry' isn't the word," said Umenyiora. "We're so hungry to get to the quarterback and to get a championship back to New York, that I think we'll pretty much do anything on Sunday."

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