EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – **It's not an overstatement to say Steve Spagnuolo this week has the most daunting challenge of any NFL coordinator.
The man who devises the game plans for the Giants defense leads a unit that has given up the most yards and has the fewest sacks in the league. And this week he is tasked with stopping the New England Patriots, who have the league's highest-scoring team (35.4 points a game) and quarterback Tom Brady, who has thrown only two interceptions in 328 pass attempts this season.
"We need a couple of breaks," Spagnuolo said. "Maybe he'll have a bad day. That's what we're hoping for."
It's up to Spagnuolo's defense to make it uncomfortable for Brady. Eight years ago, his unit famously shut down the Brady-led, 18-0 Patriots in the Giants' 17-14 victory in Super Bowl XLII. That defense included Hall of Famer Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck and collected 52 regular-season sacks. The current Giants have nine in nine games.
Spagnuolo believes that game has no bearing on the one that will be played Sunday in MetLife Stadium.
"That's a long time ago," Spagnuolo said. "It was a great moment, great experience. But in all honesty, haven't thought about that at all (this week). I just don't think they correlate. It's a different team, different people, different guys, different time. I haven't used that game in any way to go back and look at, I think it's a whole different ball of wax right now, to be honest with you."
Brady, of course, is the constant. He has an NFL-best passer rating of 113.5, and has thrown 28 touchdown passes and those two interceptions, including one last week vs. Washington.
"I don't see a lot of difference with regards to how effective and how efficient he is," Spagnuolo said. "He's probably better. Look, he's been in that system. You think about that, there's a quarterback that's been in the same system for (16 years). It's never changed, it's basically the same coaches. I know Josh (McDaniels, the offensive coordinator) left and came back and there were some other guys there, but I think that's got to be helpful. At this point, he's been running the show for a long time and he knows it. So when you're that comfortable, you basically get the chalk last as the quarterback out there. And that's what makes it really challenging."
Brady has the quickest release in the NFL, getting rid of the ball, on average, in 2.18 seconds. That presents a tremendous challenge to a defense, particularly a front seven dedicated to putting pressure on him. But Brady has been sacked 18 times, in part because injuries have forced constant reshuffling on the offensive line. But no matter who's in front of Brady, it's difficult to get to him in two seconds.
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"You just try to get push, try to get push, get your hands up, try to affect him in some way," defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins said. "You may not be able to get to him to sack him, but if you get enough push and not allow him to step up into his throws, or if you can get some deflected passes, anything that will help."
"It'll have to make us think twice about certain things," Spagnuolo said. "With any quarterback that gets it out that quick, the best way to defend is to affect the guys he's throwing to. So we've got to find ways to cover better and maybe mix and change things up a little bit. But if you're an offensive lineman, you probably want to play—I mean everybody wants to play with Tom Brady, right? But if you're an offensive lineman, he can really make you look good.
"Look it, he's as balanced a quarterback as I've ever seen. When I watched him, in all the years I've never seen a guy sit in the pocket and be as balanced and as calm and mechanically perfect as anybody. Every time I watch him, he does the same thing. It makes it tough."
So does his supporting cast, which includes wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski and running back LaGarrette Blount. The Pats will miss their second-leading rusher, Dion Lewis, who tore his ACL last week.
But it all starts with Brady.
"Well, if you can push it a little bit, and get him uncomfortable," Spagnuolo said. "And we have to cover better. We'll mix the coverages up a little bit, and maybe get a couple of knockdowns. There's no secret to it. He's back there in the gun and he's going to throw it. We have to find a way on the back end to play a little bit tighter."
If the Giants' defense is going to impede the high-scoring Patriots, it's going to take a group effort.
"It's all about trying to get the best guys on the field functioning the best," Spagnuolo said. "We talk about it all the time, and I just think if you go back in the games that we've played, and we go back and review and assess it. Last week our motto was, 'Simplify to magnify.' Simplify what we were doing to magnify how fast we were playing. So I thought we played pretty well, except for those two plays (a 68-yard pass and 59-yard run) last week. So we'll try to do the same thing and throw a wrinkle in there when we can, hopefully, do that, too."
*Four players did not practice today: linebackers J.T. Thomas (ankle) and Uani 'Unga (neck), tight end Larry Donnell (neck) and wide receiver Victor Cruz (calf).
Three players were limited: guard Justin Pugh (who did not practice yesterday because of illness), and cornerbacks Prince Amukamara (pectoral) and Leon McFadden (groin). Guard Geoff Schwartz (ankle) practiced fully.