Matt Light’s stomach briefly replaced Rob Gronkowski’s ankle as the top story for the New England Patriots on Wednesday.
A three-time Pro Bowl left tackle, Light has protected Tom Brady’s blindside for the past 11 seasons. But he missed Monday’s full-pads practice and Tuesday’s Media Day after contracting a stomach virus.
Light declared himself fit for duty at an early-morning press conference in the tent outside New England’s team hotel. If the uneasiness returns later in the week, it will likely be a result of the New York Giants’ ferocious pass rush.
“It’s not easy to have so many good pass rushers on one defensive line,” Light said. “They have amassed a number of them. Even the guys that rotate in there are good at what they do. They bought into that system, obviously. They work hard at everything.”
Big Blue reached Super Bowl XLVI with three playoff wins against teams that sported a better regular-season record. It’s just the second time in NFL history that’s happened, and the team’s third-down speed personnel group is a major contributing factor.
In wins against the Atlanta Falcons, Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers, the Giants recorded nine quarterback sacks. They felled Packers star Aaron Rodgers four times in the divisional round and got to San Francisco’s Alex Smith three times in the NFC Championship
Much of the damage was done by New York’s “NASCAR” package — a grouping of pass rushers Osi Umenyiora, Mathias Kiwanuka, Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul along the defensive line.
Emboldened by their postseason success, the Giants have spent much of the week promising to terrorize Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
Not that he’s losing any sleep over it.
“It wouldn’t be the Super Bowl if they weren’t talking about coming to knock me down and trying to knock me out,” Brady said. “That’s what I expect, and you know what, our offensive line gets paid to keep those guys out of there.”
New York sacked Brady twice and intercepted him twice during the teams’ regular-season meeting on Nov. 6. The Giants won that contest 24-20 on Eli Manning’s late touchdown pass.
New England center Dan Connolly said it’s nice to have personal experience to draw on against New York, but that advantage cuts both ways.
“They played against us, too,” he said. “They’re going to know better ways to beat us probably. So we’ve got our work cut out for us.”
Six-time Pro Bowler Brian Waters chose the Patriots over the Dallas Cowboys as a free agent during the offseason, and even switched positions, for the chance to play in big games like this.
After 12 years as a left guard with the Kansas City Chiefs, Waters switched to the right side this year in New England. He’ll likely find himself matched up one-on-one with Pierre-Paul often on third down. It’s a unique challenge because very few defensive tackles have the size and speed of Pierre-Paul, a defensive end who moves inside on passing downs.
Waters said the Patriots are adopting unique training methods to prepare for the Giants’ speed.
“You get the smallest, fastest guys that you can get and try to use them for their speed and athletic ability,” he said. “You use linebackers, you use defensive backs, you use whoever you have to, the fast guys on your football team, to try to simulate that type of speed.”
Of course, nothing truly can prepare a player for the real thing.
“We try to move our guys around a little bit and get them to play like the Giants play,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. “I don’t know if anybody can play like the Giants play.”
If New England has a secret weapon, it could be assistant head coach/offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. A fiery leader who is in his 28th season on the Patriots’ staff, Scarnecchia expects perfection from his linemen.
He’ll also defend them to the end.
“We’re not swinging a bat with no one,” he said. “We’ve got pretty good guys and guys that have experience. They’re good guys, tough guys.”
And they very well may determine who lifts the Lombardi Trophy on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The number of tiny black pellets from inside the field turf that are clinging to Brady’s jersey after the Super Bowl likely will tell the story.
“It usually does,” four-time Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins said. “The better job you do protecting him, the better chance you have to win. Hopefully, he doesn’t need much laundry work on his jersey.”