Defense is more than a plotline to Super Bowl XLVI. For the two teams battling this Sunday, defense has defined their seasons.
The New York Giants have a ferocious defensive front and a relentless pass-rushing force that has taken down one elite passing offense this postseason and is looking to repeat the feat.
The New England Patriots have a defense that was on pace to be the worst against the pass in NFL history earlier this year, but has rebounded to have a solid postseason.
As is always the case in the NFL's title game, some defensive players will have games to remember, games that define their career. Here are five players who will play big roles on the game's biggest stage.
The 325-pound defensive tackle has been playing the best football of his life while anchoring the New England Patriots line.
Vince Wilfork is normally valuable for the work he does for his teammates. The nose tackle typically draws two blockers when New England plays out of the 3-4 scheme, freeing up passages for his ends and linebackers into the backfield.
During the playoffs, however, Wilfork has been on a rampage. He was unblockable against the Ravens in the AFC championship, totaling six tackles (two for a loss) and a sack, and his 2.5 sacks in two playoff games are one less than he had the whole regular season.
The veteran's been in the zone for the biggest games of the Patriots' season. Look for that to continue, and for him to continue providing pressure while limiting what Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw can earn up the middle.
Jason Pierre-Paul could be on the verge of a big day as well—for completely different reasons.
The All-Pro defensive end has been kept relatively under wraps these playoffs, managing only a half-sack in three games. He had 16.5 sacks during the season, so it would seem likely that he has a breakout coming.
Pierre-Paul is the type of rusher that gives the Patriots problems. New England is fine handling strength, but defending against quickness can be its Achilles heel. The explosiveness of rushers like DeMarcus Ware and Terrell Suggs has caused problems before, and Pierre-Paul's skill set fits that mold.
Pierre-Paul already has a sack against New England this season, and he could pick the Super Bowl stage to return to form.
Osi Umenyiora will certainly come ready to play on Sunday. He's been Big Blue's most consistent pass-rusher during their playoff run, and while his play has been making headlines, his mouth has been doing the same.
Umenyiora brought up a dislike that exists between him and Patriots tackle Matt Light, saying that the lineman "gets under (his) skin." Though the Giants have been talking without much of a filter as Super Bowl Sunday has approached, Umenyiora stopped short of insulting the talkative Light, calling him "important to his team" and saying that battles between the two of them might take the focus off his teammates.
Don't expect Umenyiora to be negated, however. The 30-year-old is a big-time player, as shown by his 5.5 sacks over the Giants' last four games, all of which were elimination contests. He'll be hard to shut down.
Expect Umenyiora to get his share of victories Sunday night. Light's been playing well and is no slouch, but Umenyiora will get a few cracks at Tom Brady in the pocket. If he gets there quick enough to bring the quarterback down, that could be the difference in the game.
Call it a hunch if you wish, but if anyone on the Giants' defensive line is going to be left in favorable situations, it's Chris Canty.
He's the forgotten man on a line full of superstars. Ask a casual football fan who needs to be accounted for on the New York front, and you'll hear about Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, Jason Pierre-Paul...
No one mentions Canty, a defensive tackle who managed to put together a relatively impressive four sacks this season.
Bill Belichick is no casual fan, mind you, but he's seen this Giants movie before. He knows he can't let Tuck or Pierre-Paul go off or Umenyiora or Mathias Kiwanuka have their way against the New England offensive line. Whenever they do, the Patriots have lost.
And Belichick's schemes can't key in on everyone. So someone's going to be left one-on-one, and Canty, who's 6'7" and a sculpted 317 pounds, is not an easy isolated matchup.
Canty probably won't wreak the havoc that his linemates can create on the quarterback, but he could play a role in collapsing the Patriots' protection. Canty will be in position for a big night.
During the New England Patriots' Super Bowl championship years, the No. 50 jersey was worn by Mike Vrabel, who was perhaps the most versatile player on the defense.
The Patriots are back in the Super Bowl, and No. 50 has a worthy replacement. Rob Ninkovich now dons the number, and while he's not Vrabel, he's close.
Ninkovich is a reliable player for Bill Belichick, able to set the edge in the run game and get after the quarterback in the pass rush. He's also solid in coverage, and while he's not spectacular, he's rarely responsible for defensive breakdowns.
In the Patriots' biggest games, however, Ninkovich has upped his play across the board. He broke out with a five-tackle, two-interception effort in a season-turning victory over the Jets, totaled five sacks over the final seven regular-season games and started the playoffs with five tackles, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble against Denver.
He's come up big for New England this season, and will be asked to do a lot on Sunday. He's been hot lately, and he should keep that streak going in Indianapolis.