Gettin' more physical

Packers should be able to stuff Giants' rushing attack, says PackerReport.com's Tyler Dunne

Immediately after Green Bay won Snow Bowl II over Seattle, 42-20, mobs of cameras swallowed Ryan Grant, Brett Favre and Greg Jennings, while everyone else jubilantly jolted into the locker room.

Except for Corey Williams. Who cares that Green Bay's catlike quick defensive tackle may leave the Packers as a high-priced free agent in two months? He absorbed the moment. Before heading into the massive green tunnel, Williams veered left, turned toward fans in section 127 and screamed one message for all 72,168 fans:

"One more game to the Super Bowl!"

After northernizing the Seahawks' ultra-finesse West Coast offense, the Packers' defense sure looked Super Bowl ready ... or UFC ready. Either way, last weekend Green Bay's defense displayed the consistent brutality needed to punish the New York Giants' power rushing game.

By the good fortunes of Curly and Vince, Lambeau Field will once again transform into a whiteout and once again a frightened opposing offense will repeatedly tap the breaks and flip between high and low beam lights, while the Packers recklessly storm through the blizzard like a tractor trailer hogging the highway.

The NFC Championship Game is the perfect match-up for Green Bay's defense in terms of personnel, location and attitude. Domination on defense just takes proper scheming.

Indeed, the Giants' possess a committed running game – they were fourth in the NFL in rushing during the regular season behind the thunder/lightning tandem of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw. When you see Jacobs (6-4, 264) completely out-sprint Buffalo's Donte Whitner (5-10, 208) on a 43-yard touchdown, the lead back's sheer combination of size and speed is downright scary. Add the stop-and-start, shifty Bradshaw (5-9, 198) and the Giants' have a running game that'd make Tiki Barber blush.

But Bob Sanders' defense has a knack for exposing one-dimensional offenses. Derailing the Jacobs-Bradshaw bandwagon will be priority No. 1, 2 and 3. Green Bay's personnel is equipped to stymie New York's ground game and the Green Bay weather forecast is anti-Eli. Cold and snow await.

The eye of the storm
To neutralize Jacobs and Bradshaw defensive coordinator Bob Sanders must initiate contact. By no means is this synonymous with a Bob Slowik blitz-til-we-puke game plan. Unless it is third-and-long, Sanders must stack 6 to 8 defenders in the box. The absence of Jeremy Shockey (injured reserve) and the emergence of Atari Bigby calls for such aggressiveness.

In a hybrid safety/linebacker, rover-type of role, Bigby would cause the Giants' fits. Blitz him. Stunt him. Match him up head-up on tight ends. Turn the table – make Bigby test Eli's Manning genes by confusing Peyton's younger brother into audibles every play. Bigby can be an exotic quandary for Giants' offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, similar to Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu along the Steelers' Super Bowl run two years ago.

By utilizing Bigby as an anchor in a defensive game plan, Sanders is also capitalizing on momentum. Six weeks ago, Bigby appeared one holding penalty away from a demotion with hard-hitting rookie Aaron Rouse eagerly on deck. Since the 37-27 Dallas loss, Bigby has compensated for the defense's declining pass rush with big plays in the secondary. He picked off four passes and batted four others away in the final four games to win Defensive Player of the Month honors and on Saturday, Bigby's physical presence demoralized Seattle.

Bigby led the team in tackles with seven, crashing without conscience into Seahawks for multiple big hits. It's as if Bigby picks a spot five yards beyond a receiver and throws all of his 211 pounds through the man. In frigid conditions the impact of his collisions is multiplied beyond a Steve Atwater-on-Christian Okoye level.

Bigby's obliteration of Marcus Pollard on the first play of the second quarter may have been the play of the game. The forced fumble gave Brett Favre's offense the ball at Seattle's 18-yard line and Green Bay tied the game at 14. The explosion also set the tone for the defense in a way Wayne Simmons' hit on Adam Walker did in the 1995 NFC Divisional win at San Francisco.

Bigby's attitude is contagious. DB-mate Al Harris is mostly known for nagging receivers with an initial jam at the line but Saturday the wiry 6-1 cover corner had two shoulder-pad knockouts. You almost got the sense that Green Bay's secondary played the entire game with AC/DC blaring in their helmets. No doubt, Seattle's receivers accumulated each ‘thunderstruck' in their memory bank, leading to flinching and drops. Ben Obomanu, who was hit hard by Bigby earlier in the game, had a crucial drop in Green Bay territory.

Eighty degrees ago, way back in July, before anyone even knew who this third-string safety with dreads was, Al Harris hinted to reporters that the former practice-squader would be something special. Maybe Harris should also buy a lottery ticket.

Bigby overcame a poor preseason at Pittsburgh to unseat Marquand Manuel and win the starting job. Mike McCarthy continued to play Bigby through a midseason slump and now raw athleticism is shining within Sanders' overall scheme. Sunday may be the pinnacle of Bigby's breakthrough season. As his physicality spreads throughout the defense, Bigby must be Sanders' focal point.

"I see it all the time," Harris said after the playoff win. "(Bigby) is a man. He's the real deal. Any play that he makes, we're not amazed because we see it all the time. That's how he plays. He only has one speed. If you're on his team, just get out of his way."

Play to the Weather
If Sanders fills the box with Bigby and up to seven others, the onus then falls on Eli Manning. The inconsistent fourth-year pro was sharp as a caretaker in the weather-friendly confines of Tampa Bay and Dallas, but it's impossible to exaggerate winter at Lambeau Field. Last weekend, a growing snowstorm banished Seattle to Siberia and Green Bay poked them with a stick for the final 55 minutes.

Eli apologists are quick to point at Manning's last three games, which have effectively shut up Eli haters. The NFL's leader in interceptions (20) during the regular season put together passer ratings of 118.6, 117.1 and 132.4 against the 1st, 6th and 13th ranked pass defenses. But with early weather forecasts predicting low temperatures of five degrees to below zero at Lambeau Sunday night, Manning's two games prior to the New England, Tampa Bay and Dallas games may be more applicable.

On Dec. 16, Washington upset the Giants in bizarre, unpredictable winds at the Meadowlands. Granted, Jacobs and Reuben Droughns had ugly drops, but Manning was atrocious. He only completed 34 percent of his passes (18-of-52) for a 51.1 rating and the Giants lost 22-10.

Manning's 34 incompletions were the most in a NFL game since Joe Namath had 36 in a game at Denver 40 years ago.

One week later, the Giants won at Buffalo 38-21 in a meteorologist's heaven. Ralph Wilson Stadium saw a heavy series of snow, rain and hail. This led to a short leash on Manning, as he went 7-of-15 for 115 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions for a 32.2 rating. Jacobs and Bradshaw carved through Buffalo's injury-riddled defense for 294 yards, though, silencing the Good Eli/Bad Eli debate.

While the NFC Championship may become more about what Manning is playing in rather than who he is playing against, his opposition is nonetheless designed to stifle the Giants' recent dink and dunk offense.

After 33 games in Bob Sanders' scheme, Green Bay's defense is reacting much quicker to the short passing game. While Ryan Grant and the Packers' slant-attack was this season's revelation on offense, an improved reaction time to underneath routes may have been the defense's biggest improvement from last season.

Chad Pennington (25-for-35, 263 yards, 2 TD) and Tom Brady (20-for-31, 244 yards, 4 TD) carved up the Packers' with a precise, timing-based passing assault in '06, but in Year Two experience in Sanders' system is showing. Linebackers A.J. Hawk, Nick Barnett and Brady Poppinga have disrupted the rhythm of quick-hitting offenses and Green Bay's defense isn't over-thinking. It is reacting.

This effect could easily occur this weekend. As Green Bay loads 6 to 8 defenders within two yards of the line of scrimmage, Manning will be tempted to lean on his underneath safety valves. Hawk, Barnett and Poppinga must periodically respond to the pass, while they're mind screams "Run!" every play.

Forget that Green Bay's defense ranked 11th in the regular season. In the divisional playoff it tortured Seattle's mindset into a daze. Saturday's blizzard, which was Green Bay's best since the original Snow Bowl between Green Bay and Tampa Bay in 1985, forced Seattle into a night game without lights. Pollard and others couldn't spot the ball and Green Bay's defense snowballed the ‘Hawks right into Sanders' lap. Snow be a factor again, according to early forecasts, but two conclusions can be made: Lambeau Field will be freezing in single-digit temperatures and Eli Manning will be forced to beat the Packers.

That may be enough for Williams to slightly modify his rally cry after the game.

Tyler Dunne is a frequent contributor to PackerReport.com and Packer Report magazine. E-mail him at tydunne07@yahoo.com.


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