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Antonio Pierce knows how Steve Spagnuolo can beat Tom Brady (again) in Super Bowl


There goes Blade. There goes Saw. There goes Tango.

When Antonio Pierce sits down Sunday to watch the Kansas City Chiefs face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV, the former Giants defensive captain already knows all the blitzes they will throw at Tom Brady. Pierce was the field general when Steve Spagnuolo, now the defensive coordinator for the Chiefs, orchestrated a perfect game plan against the undefeated Patriots on the biggest stage 13 years ago.

"Hell, line me up and I can do it," Pierce said on the “Giants Huddle” podcast. "I know it like the back of my hand."

Recently promoted to sole defensive coordinator at Arizona State, Pierce can recall everything from Super Bowl XLII. When asked what he remembers about the plan to upset Brady and Bill Belichick, Pierce, perhaps one of the smartest players ever to wear a Giants uniform, said to be more specific. OK then, what about his favorite third-down call?

"We went Sniper Blitz, when we brought Gibril Wilson and Kawika Mitchell off the edge," Pierce recalled without hesitation. "I'm dropping, rocking and rolling, doing my deal in coverage. And then really the best one was, 'Hey, go get him. My four D-linemen, go get him. Rush.' We were playing Cloud over here on Randy Moss, kept our Cover-2 safety over the top to make sure he didn't catch anything deep. The longest ball he had in that game was 18 yards – totally different than what he did in Week 17 against us. (The Giants nearly spoiled the Patriots' bid for perfection in the final game of the season, but Moss caught two touchdowns, including a 65-yarder that put them ahead in the fourth quarter.) We kept the ball in front of us. Everything was top-down. The most important thing we did in that game was disguise. We disguised."

And brought the heat.

"You are not going to allow Tom Brady to sit back and pick you apart; you can't," Pierce said. "For me, that Super Bowl, what I do remember is just us constantly – the main focus was obviously hitting him but moving him off his spot. Making him tap dance, as I used to call it. Have happy feet, uncomfortable in the pocket, and more importantly, throw the ball quickly so we can rally up to it rather than the ball go up like a rainbow and watch Randy run down the field waving his hand."

All these years later, Spagnuolo will try to do the same thing.

The Chiefs will try to become the first repeat champions since … Brady won Super Bowls XXXVIII and XXXIX. At 43 years old, though, the six-time champion has seen it all. But if there was somebody to do it, it would be Spagnuolo and a defensive staff full of former Giants coaches.

"I used to call him the mad scientist when he ran around the building at Giants Stadium," Pierce said of Spagnuolo. "I couldn't grab his attention because he was so focused and dialed in. But he's not distracted. I wouldn't even dare to call or text or reach out to him this week because I know he is iron-sharp focused on what he has to do with the Buccaneers. To me, what makes him special is that he can relate to the players. He listens so well. So many times as a coordinator, you have all the answers. And there were so many times when I would go to Spags with a suggestion like, 'Coach, look, I was with the boys on Thursday night. We were talking, and that ain't going to work. I know you see it working upstairs, but it ain't working on the grass.' And he would listen."

Must-see photos from the Giants' Super Bowl XLII victory parade on February 5, 2008

Chiefs head coach Andy Reid hired Spagnuolo in 2019, a reunion for the two after they began their tenure with the Eagles together in 1999. Spagnuolo then brought over defensive backs coach Dave Merritt and cornerbacks coach Sam Madison, two former members of the Giants organization. Merritt coached for Tom Coughlin during both of their Super Bowl runs while Madison played on the 2007 championship team.

In the first year with the band back together, the Chiefs won the Super Bowl.

"Dave is another guy who can talk to the players," Pierce said. "He resonates with the players. He doesn't give you a lot. He gives you his three to five key points, and allows you to really dial in and hone those and you see the result every Sunday with the way those guys are playing. What he's done with Honey Badger [All-Pro Tyrann Mathieu] and what Spags has done with that safety, that unique, special player he has there, I think it's a true testament to Dave Merritt."

Meanwhile, Pierce and Madison took similar journeys to where they are today. After their playing days, they both worked in the media before taking jobs as high school coaches – Pierce at Long Beach Polytechnic in California, and Madison at St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

"Me and Mad Dog were doing Media Row one year at the Super Bowl, and then he's coaching high school, I'm coaching high school, and then Spags had reached out to me as well to coach over there with the Chiefs,' Pierce said. "He's like, 'Sam Madison is coming.' 'Sam who?' 'Sam Madison.' I'm like, 'Wow.' We talked about it, and I think the opportunity for Sam to get with Dave Merritt, who coached him when we were together in New York, and to be underneath the system that he's very familiar with – Sam was a savvy player. At the end of his career, was he as sharp from a physical standpoint? No. But mentally, understanding concepts and splits by the wide receivers and what the offense was trying to do to us, he was at an all-time high. And if you watch their corners play, they're press corners, they've got long arms, they tackle well, they play the ball when it's in the air – that looks like Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain when they played together at the Dolphins. When I watch them, I'm impressed because it's very difficult to come from high school and make that jump right to the pros."

Although Pierce's profession has changed and his ultimate goal is to become a head coach, he has only one response when asked about the Chiefs' upcoming opportunity.

"Jealous," he said. "Man, I'm jealous. They get to get after Tom again. They're in the Super Bowl again. We should have been back-to-back champions [in 2007 and 2008 with the Giants], but that's neither here nor there. I'm just proud of those guys, especially Spags. He left us in '08 after a great two-year run, got the opportunity to be head coach of the Rams, didn't work out for him, came back to the Giants. I thought that was going to work out, it didn't, and now to see him have success with the Chiefs along with Andy Reid and what they've built there defensively. …

"For me, as I watch these guys play this year, it's very impressive to see them maintain the level of mental and emotional toughness through this COVID year, with dealing with what they've dealt with from having Zoom meetings, not being at practice, not being in the building, and Spags as always has kept that rock-solid foundation together with the unit."

From Coughlin and Spagnuolo with the Giants to Herm Edwards and Marvin Lewis with the Sun Devils, Pierce has been able to play and coach under great mentors along the way. Now, he is paying it forward – from warmer pastures.

"One thing I learned: You don't shovel sunshine," Pierce said from the desert as a blizzard struck the Northeast this week. "You enjoy it. I'm blessed to be out here on the West with Coach Edwards and ASU.

"It's a great opportunity for me. … I never thought in a million years I would be coaching in college," he continued. "At the end of the day, you want to change people's lives. I'd love to win a Super Bowl and do things of that nature, but man, seeing the 18-year-old or 21-year-old live out their dreams and play in the NFL or smell it or get a taste or touch of the NFL, to me it's the ultimate goal because you're one in a million. It's one of the hardest things to do and maintain it. To see the joy on everybody's faces, as most players say, when they make it they took care of their family or at least they set their family up. If they use their platforms correctly, I think we're giving them the guidance here because of our professional background. We're setting these guys up for success because we're telling them what to expect when they get there, when they get with the Giants."

View photos of former Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce.


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