SI Vault
Paul Zimmerman
January 26, 1987
A harrowing corps of linebackers should lead the Giants to victory over John Elway's Broncos—narrowly
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January 26, 1987

Closing In On The Big One

A harrowing corps of linebackers should lead the Giants to victory over John Elway's Broncos—narrowly

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The Giants are not nickel-defense-oriented. They like to leave their linebackers on the field as much as possible, occasionally calling on a fifth defensive back, rookie Mark Collins, but rarely going to a sixth, which is what the book says you should do against the four-wideout alignment. Covering the two inside, or slot, receivers could be a problem—provided Elway has time to deliver. The key to the Giants' rush in the playoffs hasn't really been Taylor, who has been dropping back into coverage more than at any time during the season, as much as Banks on the outside, and Marshall and Pro Bowl nosetackle Jim Burt inside. Against the 49ers, the Giants wanted inside, not outside, pressure to combat Montana's quick release. In the Redskins game, Washington was sending tight end Don Warren in motion to Taylor's side, leaving Banks with the clear lane.

Denver's offensive line is relatively small, with weights ranging from 255 to 269. The Giants' pass rush could overrun it. The key to the Broncos' success is the precision of their trapping-based running game. It can lie dormant for a while and then break loose when least expected—as New England found out in the first playoff. The Broncos' running backs, Sammy Winder, Gene Lang and Gerald Willhite, look like clones, little bouncy guys who get hurt once or twice a game but keep coming back.

On paper it doesn't figure for the Broncos to get much of a running game going against the NFL's top-ranked rushing defense, which can bring its inside linebackers head-up against the guards and stop them cold, but who knows? Maybe they can be trapped. Any semblance of a running game, to take that little edge off the pass rush, would be a boost for Elway.

Three Broncos, left corner Louis Wright, free safety Steve Foley and outside linebacker Tom Jackson, were part of the defense that faced the Cowboys nine Super Bowls ago. Ask them the difference between the Broncs then and now and they'll tell you the pressure's off; the defense doesn't have to carry the offense anymore, as it did in the old days. Elway is fully capable of bailing the team out of a tough spot.

After seven weeks of the season the Broncos' defenders were No. 1 against the rush in the NFL. Undersized but quick, they flew around the field like swarming gnats. With defensive end Rulon Jones and linebacker Karl Mecklenburg doing a lot of the damage, they went through five games without allowing more than 77 yards on the ground. They had an NFL-record six straight five-sack games. They were relentless.

Then they wore down. Teams started pounding them. They were still effective, but the relentless quality was gone. The two-week layoff before the playoffs helped. So will the two-week pre-Super Bowl break. But the Giants are a pounding type of team, keyed by a big blocking fullback, Maurice Carthon, a great blocker at tight end in Mark Bavaro, another one in Zeke Mowatt, and of course, Pro Bowl halfback Joe Morris. The strange thing is that his long training camp holdout probably helped keep him fresher in the late going.

Simms is the perfect quarterback to run this kind of attack, modest enough to let the big guys up front do the work if things are going well, but daring, too. Like Elway, he's a down-the-field passer, a streak thrower who can go 5 for 15 in the first half but then can get hot and kill you.

For Simms and the Giants' offense, the season went through three phases. Phase 1 was the first 10 games, the Vanilla Phase. Their offense was fairly basic. Phase 2 was Cardiac November or the Coming of Phil Simms. He had to convert a fourth-and-17 on the drive that led to the field goal that beat the Vikings in the last 12 seconds. Next week he cashed a third-and-21 on the drive that eventually beat Denver with six seconds left. Finally there was the Monday Nighter against the 49ers, who shut down the running game and told Simms: Beat us with your arm. And that is just what he did, turning a 17-0 deficit into a 21-17 victory in less than nine minutes.

Phase 3: the Mighty Giants, overpowering, crushing, 49 points against the 49ers, 17 in the first half against the Skins. They could have scored 17 more in the second half if they had wanted to. Offense working on all levels, defense rising up with a fury, a mighty machine.

"The Giants are capable of doing this to any team," 49er guard Randy Cross said after the 49-3 defeat. "They're like Chicago last year or us the year before. Every year a team emerges that seems capable of crushing anybody, and that's the level the Giants are at right now."

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