The New York Giants pass rush would seem to be an unstoppable force on third down, but as the Green Bay Packers proved the first time these teams faced off, Aaron Rodgers isn't fazed at all by the pressure.
For the rest of the NFL, a defensive line loaded with star pass rushers makes the New York defense one of the most intimidating in the league.
The strength of the Giants' defensive line its versatility. No other team has any many talented pass rushers, and no other team has the ability to get them all on the field at the same time.
In passing situations, the New York rushers are relentless, constantly stunting and twisting to confuse opposing offensive lines. The Giants can line up with four defensive ends, all of whom could make a compelling case to earn a double-team from the opposing offensive line.
Each player is dangerous on his own, but any extra attention paid to one Giants lineman opens up opportunities for his teammates. If Jason Pierre-Paul misses, Justin Tuck is there to clean it up. If Mathias Kiwanuka is double-teamed, Osi Umenyiora will find a lane to the quarterback.
Pierre-Paul and his compatriots are often able to break through because of missed blocking assignments along the offensive line. Linemen will over-commit to stopping the overloaded side of the defensive line, leaving openings where the rest of the line can attack. It exposes the passer by disintegrating the pocket.
While all of that havoc produces clear lanes for pass rushers, it also opens lanes for a quarterback willing to tuck the ball and run.
Rodgers is more than willing to take advantage of those opportunities. He proved as much when the Packers and Giants met in the regular season.
The Giants knocked Rodgers down on six occasions, but only sacked him twice. New York was able to get consistent pressure on the Packers passer, but more often than not, Rodgers was able to escape. When the Giants pursued outside of their rushing lanes, he took advantage, scrambling for first downs four times, two of which came on third down.
Rodgers actually led Green Bay in rushing with 32 yards on his four carries.
It was an outstanding game, but nothing new for Rodgers. He's at his best when he's scrambling to buy time for long pass routes to develop downfield, but on third down, he knows when to take what the defense gives him and keep the drive moving.
During the regular season, Rodgers rushed for more yards on third down than in any other situation, averaging an impressive eight yards per carry when the Packers need three yards or more.
With Rodgers' ability to improvise, Green Bay didn't have to greatly adjust its play calling to protect against the New York pass rush. One of the common strategies to diffuse a defensive line is to call draw plays in passing situations, but on third downs against the Giants, the Packers didn't call a single running play.
Green Bay faced 12 third downs in that game. Mike McCarthy called pass plays on 11 of them.
The only time when the Packers didn't take to the air to convert of third down, McCarthy brought out Mason Crosby to try a field goal as the first half ended.
Against the daunting New York front, Green Bay converted on seven of those 11 passing plays, scoring two of its four offensive touchdowns on third down.
Those results are impressive, but not a major departure from what both teams did during the regular season.
The Giants defense was average on third down, allowing opponents to convert on 38 percent of their opportunities.
The Packers offense is one of the best in the league on third down, converting on 48 percent of their chances.
Green Bay is able to deliver at such a high rate because of the decisiveness of its quarterback and the elusiveness of its wide receivers.
McCarthy's West Coast offense is built around quick passes that give his receivers opportunities to run after the catch. Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson and James Jones are all capable of turning a five-yard slant into a 60-yard catch and run.
Plays are designed so that receivers catch the ball in stride, allowing them to turn upfield for extra yardage and preventing the defense from just camping out in front of the first down line in third down situations.
The key to this offense is a quarterback that can find the open man and get the ball in his hands as quickly as possible. In that department, nobody in football is better than Rodgers.
His lightning-quick release gives his receivers an edge and neutralizes the pass rush.
Some Giants, notably Pierre-Paul, are able to overwhelm their individual blocker and beat the quarterback to the top of his drop, but many of the Giants pass rushing schemes take time to develop. Against an offense predicated on getting the ball out fast, those schemes won't be nearly as effective.
At this point in the season, no team is going to make wholesale changes to its approach. These teams have made it this far for a reason.
Unfortunately for the New York Giants, their strength will go head-to-head with the one of the most elite units in football, the passing game of the Green Bay Packers. In the most crucial third down situations, Rodgers will win out, and fueled by those conversions, the Packers will move on to host the NFC Championship.
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