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Stopping would be Giant step

By John Powers
Globe Staff / November 4, 2011

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - The memories are sweet indeed. Tom Brady on his back five times in the Arizona desert, cussing out his would-be protectors. Jay Alford sacking him on the final drive that never was, the last-gasp heave to Randy Moss that went uncaught, the ball going over to Eli Manning for a triumphant kneel-down.

The reality is that for most of the Giants defenders, those memories are secondhand. Only five were in uniform when New York won Super Bowl XLII, and they’re in no mood for a “Happy Days’’ re-run this week.

“That was four years ago,’’ said end Justin Tuck, who was Brady’s prime tormentor that night. “If we were still living in the shadow of 2007, then that’s one of our greatest downfalls. We’ve got to move on. Obviously they have, and we do, too. Obviously 2007 was a great year in all of our careers, but that’s not going to help us going there this year.’’

Since they were fitted for rings the Giants have lost the only postseason game they played, and didn’t qualify the last two years. Steve Spagnuolo, who orchestrated New York’s imaginative and disruptive defensive scheme, now is head coach of the Rams, who’ve lost six of seven and were burned for 28 points by his old team. Tuck and bookend Osi Umenyiora, who’ve missed a combined seven games with injuries and haven’t started a game together, are just now getting back into rhythm.

The Giants are entirely concerned with getting their defense back to where it’s supposed to be, which means stopping rival rushers from putting up triple figures.

“First thing, we always want to defend the run,’’ said strong safety Kenny Phillips.

The numbers show that the Giants haven’t done much of that this season. They’re ranked 28th in rushing defense, allowing 130 yards a game.

Last week, Reggie Bush rumbled through them for 103 as the winless Dolphins put New York in an 11-point hole at home, and had the ball on their 40 with three minutes to play and a chance to win.

“What run defense?’’ Tuck muttered when asked about it.

The Giants avoided what would have been a humiliating defeat by doing what they still do best, with Umenyiora and linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka sacking Matt Moore for consecutive 10-yard losses, forcing a fourth-and-23 heave that was picked off by cornerback Corey Webster.

“We definitely count on our pass rush to help our pass defense,’’ said defensive coordinator Perry Fewell. “And we’ll count on our pass rush to help our pass defense again.’’

There’s a different coordinator and some of the faces have changed since 2007, but the Giants still are sack masters, ranking first in the league per pass play. While Tuck and Umenyiora still create havoc, this year’s chief disrupter has been Jason Pierre-Paul, the second-year end who has 8 1/2 sacks.

“Most times a team may have one player that is the caliber of a rusher that you have to game-plan for, but the Giants have about five of them,’’ said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “They have so many guys and they are all very good.’’

Some combination of them will be coming after Brady again Sunday, hoping to make him as uncomfortable as possible.

“You can’t let a guy like Brady stay long in the pocket,’’ said Pierre-Paul. “You’ve just got to rush him. Come from every angle.’’

Diversity and deception still are trademarks of the Big Blue pass rush, just as they were when their pursuers hurried, hassled, and hammered Brady in the Super Bowl. They still know how to bum-rush a field general, but they have no illusions about the likelihood of a reprise this weekend.

“I don’t expect them to give us the opportunities,’’ reckoned Tuck. “I think they’ll try their best to confuse us a little bit more as far as snap counts and formation stuff and just getting the ball out of his hands a little quicker, being more decisive. That’s where we come into play, hoping to confuse him a little bit on some plays, get him to pat the ball a few more times than he normally would. But with a guy like him it’s always a chess match. You’ve just got to try to be one step ahead of him.’’

That starts with putting Brady into as many third and longs as possible.

“We always say you’ve got to earn the right to rush the passer,’’ said Kiwanuka. “Which means you’ve got to stop the run, get them in a position where they have to throw the ball, and just go have fun.’’

Running Brady to the ground, as the Giants did when last they met, is not as easy as it may look on a diagram.

“He’s not the most mobile guy, but he doesn’t have to be the most mobile guy, and that’s to his credit,’’ said Kiwanuka, who observed that most defenders have limited success even flushing Brady out of the pocket. “He’s good at knowing how to get the ball out of his hands fast if he has to.’’

The best way to deal with Brady, as the Steelers showed last Sunday, is never to let him get the ball in his hands. But since Manning is likely to be missing his top rusher (Ahmad Bradshaw) and receiver (Hakeem Nicks) with injuries, the Giants likely will not be able to control the clock as much as they’d like to in a stadium where the Patriots have won 20 straight regular-season games.

So their defensive modus operandi will be what it usually is - stuff the running game and then come after Brady from a variety of directions.

“Perry does a good job of scheming and putting them in different positions so you don’t know where Pierre-Paul is going to be or Tuck or Kiwanuka,’’ said Belichick. “Sometimes it is hard to find them and it is hard to block them, so they present a huge challenge just in their depth, quality, and speed. It is as good of a group as I have seen in a long time.’’

This Giants group isn’t the same cast of characters that won the rings. They’re starting a rookie linebacker (Greg Jones) for the first time since Lawrence Taylor in 1981 and a second-year man (Linval Joseph) on the line, and the secondary, conceded Fewell, is a work in progress. This New York edition has seen the Super Bowl films so often, says Kiwanuka, that “we can just throw it on at a random point and most guys can tell you what was going to happen before the ball was even snapped.’’

What happened when these elevens last met is interesting but irrelevant, the Giant defenders say. As Jersey guy Tony Soprano once declared, “remember when’’ is the lowest form of conversation.

“The better team this year is going to win the football game,’’ said Tuck. “Not the better team in ’07.’’

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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