Super Bowl 2012: 10 Most Underperforming Players Heading into Big Game
We have seen the best of both teams at times during the playoffs, but weaknesses remain. Which star performers exploit these deficiencies will be a key angle going into the game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Neither franchise can afford to carry underperforming players into the biggest game of the season.
Let's break down the 10 players who are either struggling for consistency, or in need of a huge performance in a fortnight's time.
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Tom Brady will have to step up his game a level if he is to match Joe Montana's legacy and win a fourth Super Bowl ring next month.
His two performances in the playoffs couldn't be more different. A six-touchdown masterpiece against the Denver Broncos was followed by Sunday's flat display in the AFC Championship game.
The Baltimore Ravens might be the best defense that Brady has faced all season, but speaking on-field after the game, his assessment of his contribution (239 yards, 0 TDs, 2I NT) was as honest as it was accurate:
"Well, I sucked pretty bad today, but our defense saved us. I'm gonna go out and try and do a better job in a couple of weeks."
Two plays stand out from Sunday's game. First, an overthrown pass up the seam to a wide-open Rob Gronkowski on the Patriots' second possession reduced a certain touchdown to a field goal.
Second, the fourth-quarter pick on a long bomb to Matthew Slater was a terrible decision.
Having won the ball back on the previous play—a Brandon Spikes interception—and with a three-point lead, the risk of throwing into double coverage to your fifth receiving option far outweighed the potential of killing the game off then and there.
By handing the ball back to Joe Flacco just moments after he gave it away, the defense had to step up and make another play. No wonder Brady was grateful to his teammates.
The Patriots are 4-6 over the past three seasons in games in which Brady throws more than one interception. Bill Belichick will be pounding that message into the players all week: Protect the football.
Brady won't need to hear it—nobody judges him harsher than himself—but ball security starts with him in Indianapolis.
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So much was expected of the second-year captain after a Pro Bowl rookie season in which he collected seven interceptions and was ever present around the ball in the secondary.
His sophomore slump can't be explained by a mid-season shoulder separation, but it did nothing to help him find his groove. In 2010 McCourty was adept at turning his hips at just the right moment, sticking to his receiver like glue and breaking up the play.
This year, the above image sums up his play. Near the ball, but never near enough, his instincts appear blunted. He might be struggling with his assignments the deeper he delves into the playbook, but that explanation doesn't satisfy.
Confidence could be a factor. Early regular-season games saw the Patriots defense come out in man coverage, along with the front-seven adjustment to a new-look 4-3.
With so much zone coverage in 2010, it's possible that McCourty struggled to adapt early and never recovered when familiar schemes returned.
The move to safety in sub-packages was designed to promote his tackling skills. But if the Patriots are to overcome the Giants, turnovers will be one of the reasons why. Another bye week should help.
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It's not all bad news with Brandon Jacobs.
Not only has he found the end zone this postseason—in the 37-20 beat-down of the Green Bay Packers—but he carried with purpose in the wild-card win over the Atlanta Falcons, rushing 14 times for 92 yards (6.6 average).
Consistency remains the issue for the Giants' power back. He gets stuffed at the line of scrimmage more than ever before, and with a longest run of 34 yards, he is no longer the irresistible force in full flight that he once was.
He can still do some damage if he reaches the second level. But with Vince Wilfork in the form of his life, breaching the wall of Wilfork and Kyle Love might be tougher for Jacobs than in his first meeting with the Patriots, when he rushed for 72 yards and a score (4.0 average).
With Ahmad Bradshaw back in the mix and taking the lion's share of the carries, Jacobs should target the second half of the Super Bowl to make his big body count on bruising runs against a tired defense.
But with running backs as talented as Ray Rice limited to 67 yards on 21 carries by the Patriots' front seven, the offensive game plan is unlikely to be altered based on Jacobs' effectiveness.
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Despite an up-and-down season, the Giants' secondary has been excellent in coverage in recent games, thanks mainly to cornerbacks Corey Webster and Aaron Ross.
Still, a couple of mistakes from the safeties almost spoiled an otherwise flawless day, resulting in two big plays for Niners' tight end Vernon Davis.
Antrel Rolle will shoulder the blame for the first error. On the Niners' second possession, Davis caught the ball at the 42, scampering into the end zone for a 73-yard score.
Rolle was the defender on the play, and Davis caught him flat-footed, ghosting by him. If he was expecting help from Deon Grant, it never came, which left Rolle with too much ground to recover.
Leaving a safety out to cover Aaron Hernandez or Rob Gronkowski is a suicide mission, particularly in single-high safety looks. No doubt Perry Fewell will run a different defensive plan for Tom Brady than he had for Alex Smith, but Rolle will still see plenty of work in the secondary.
How he responds could be crucial in limiting Brady's production.
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Chad Ochocinco's year as a Patriot has been humbling for one of the most flamboyant personalities in the league.
Gone are the bull-riding stunts and smack talk of yore. Unfortunately for No. 85, all production has disappeared with it too. With just 15 catches in 15 games this season, he has delivered a terrible return on investment, with each catch costing the Patriots a staggering $383,333.
With just a single snap to his name this postseason, he is unlikely to see the field in Super Bowl XLII. But Chad wasn't brought in to be inactive on game days.
Nor was he intended to be a true replacement for Randy Moss. Expectations were somewhere around his 2010 numbers as a Bengal—about 70 catches, 800 yards and five touchdowns would have justified his free agency money.
Whether it's the change in environment, or the complexity of the playbook, or a combination of both is hard to say. However, the blow to his confidence is there for all to see, no better illustrated than a sideline catch in the Week 11 trip to the New York Jets.
Ochocinco caught the ball and with 20 yards of daylight in front of him found a way to step out of bounds to negate a huge play. It was almost like he surprised himself by completing a catch.
Discussing how to rediscover Chad's swagger requires a whole separate article, but it's going to be too late to save his career as a Patriot.
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Nate Solder has enjoyed a solid rookie season, learning the ropes at right tackle in relief duty for the oft-injured Sebastian Vollmer.
Picked with the 17th selection of the 2011 draft, Solder has all the attributes to eventually replace Matt Light on Tom Brady's blind side. But his 6'8" frame still looks a little lean, and his inexperience is occasionally exposed.
Given that the Giants are up next, containing Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul or Mathias Kiwanuka will be his most difficult assignment yet.
In Sunday's AFC Championship game, Solder was swatted out of the way on a first-quarter rush from Paul Kruger, who delivered a crunching hit on Tom Brady.
Brady did well to retain possession as he took the sack, but he could have easily coughed up the ball or sustained injury.
Solder only needs to watch Super Bowl XLII to know how important his role will be in Indy. Brady can't make plays if he spends half the evening on the deck.
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Jake Ballard was the hero of the Week 9, 24-20 victory over the Patriots at Gillette Stadium, grabbing the game-winning score at the end of the fourth quarter.
However, a series of factors has limited his role in the offense. A knee injury has slowed his progress of late, culminating in his first zero-catch outing in the NFC Championship game last Sunday. Bear Pascoe was preferred in the red zone, converting a six-yard pass to tie the score in the second quarter.
The return of Hakeem Nicks to full health and the form of Victor Cruz, who continues to astonish, have also left the second-year tight end with fewer opportunities for receptions.
As long as Nicks, Cruz and Mario Manningham continue to get open—and I like their chances against the Patriots' secondary—there is little need to focus on Ballard.
But as Week 9 proved, the Patriots struggle to defend pass-catching tight ends, ranking 29th in the league, according to Football Outsiders.
Finding a way to incorporate Ballard might be the key once again.
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James Ihedigbo has been a steady presence in the Patriots' secondary as a reassuring tackler, although many of the team's coverage woes can be pinned on him.
A number of blown coverages in the AFC Championship game contributed to Joe Flacco's first 300-yard game in nearly three months. On the flip side, his contribution in sacking Flacco in the third quarter was key in restricting the Ravens to a field goal.
As a career special-teams player, Ihedigbo might have never seen the field in New England were it not for Bill Belichick's complete overhaul of the secondary at the end of training camp, releasing both Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders, along with numerous cornerbacks.
In a split role with rookie Sterling Moore—whose slip allowed Torrey Smith to convert a catch-and-run inside the right pylon—opposing quarterbacks have been able to victimize either player with regularity in zone coverage.
And despite relatively low expectations, Ihedigbo will likely see time in the Super Bowl as a starting safety alongside Patrick Chung. In terms of what we expect from a starting defensive back, he needs to up his game if the Patriots hope to stifle Eli Manning.
Ultimately, Danny Woodhead got away with a fumble on a kick return last Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens, but although the Patriots held firm and forced a field goal from the next series, that one play could have killed their chances of returning to the Super Bowl.
Woodhead has been far less effective in his role as a third-down back this season. His 4.6 yards per carry are low for a player who takes the field in sub-package situations. And his new role as kick-off returner, rarely breaks one beyond the 20-yard line.
With the emergence of rookie Stevan Ridley in a support role behind BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the Patriots are less reliant on their screen-pass game that sprung Woodhead on huge gains last season.
Going into the Super Bowl, doubts remain over the health of Rob Gronkowski, who is wearing a protective boot following a rolled ankle in a tangle with Ravens' safety Bernard Pollard.
If the Patriots' top target is diminished, Woodhead will be called upon for a bigger role, opening up sections of the playbook that last saw use in 2010. He will need to be sharp and decisive if he is to exploit the opportunity.
The Giants' Offensive Line
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It would be harsh to single out an individual for under-performance in Sunday's victory over the Niners. But allowing six sacks on Eli Manning points to a collective breakdown on their assignments.
The Smiths—Justin and rookie Aldon—have been in fine form this season, but the main pressure came from defensive tackle Ray McDonald, who collected 2.5 sacks in a rampant effort.
Kevin Boothe, David Baas and Chris Snee will have their work cut out with Vince Wilfork in Super Bowl XLVI. He has been tossing lineman around for fun in recent games. If he can occupy the middle of the line, Mark Anderson will have a much easier task, going one-on-one with David Diehl or Kareem McKenzie.
With a resurgent Patriots' pass -rush to contend with, the real story of Giants-Patriots II could rest with Manning's bodyguards, who kept their quarterback clean throughout their Week 9 victory in Foxboro.
As with Tom Brady, with Manning under pressure, the Giants will struggle to get the ball into the hands of Cruz and Nicks, and how the line responds to the challenge will be pivotal in the destination of a fourth Lombardi Trophy for either franchise.