The New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers head into tough divisional round matchups this weekend as they get to face off against the two best offenses in the NFL. The New Orleans Saints handled the Detroit Lions and will travel to Candlestick Park to face the San Francisco 49ers. The New York Giants defeated the Atlanta Falcons and will travel to Lambeau Field to face the Green Bay Packers.
Given the pass-heavy nature of the NFL, it should be no surprise that the Packers and Saints are both favorites this weekend. The Packers are nine point favorites, while the Saints are the first team since the 1996 Dallas Cowboys to be road favorites in the divisional round.
While both the Packers and Saints have brought plenty of offensive weapons to bear this season, their offense revolve around the quarterbacks. Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees have had arguably the two best QB seasons in 2011 and will do battle in MVP balloting later this month. Rodgers finished the season with 4,643 yards on a 68.3 completion percentage with 45 touchdowns and six interceptions. Brees finished the season a record-setting 5,476 yards on a 71.2 completion percentage with 46 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
A vast majority of experts are picking the Packers and Saints to meet up in the NFC championship game, and have been doing so since the Eagles first proved they were a fraud. Although there are still games to be won, the general belief is they are mild speed bumps en route to this highly regarded clash of titans.
Given all the hype around Brees and Rodgers, how in the world can the Giants and 49ers compete? Should they even bother showing up this weekend?
Well, there is one strategy that could help both teams. If Rodgers and Brees are both on their backs, it's hard to complete passes to even the best of receivers.
An effective pass rush can be a great equalizer against a potent passing attack. If a team can get after a quarterback effectively, it prevents receivers from extending their routes and taking time to get open. Drew Brees reached his record setting yardage total in part because his offensive line did a great job not only keeping him upright, but also keeping pressure from even getting remotely close.
The sack is the most frequently used stat to determine effectiveness of pass rush and pass protection, but quarterback hits and pressure can be equally effective in large doses. The sack can be a big momentum play, but pressure and hits can have just as much value over the course of a game. If a team can get to a quarterback enough, hearing foot steps could prove to be enough to force a quick throw.
The value of a strong pass rush can be seen in one of the bigger upsets of the year, when the St. Louis Rams shocked the New Orleans Saints in Week 8. It was over two months ago and much has changed, but the philosophy rings true. The Rams sacked Drew Brees six times and got in nine total hits. Brees was only sacked 24 times the entire season, but when the heat was on in St. Louis, the Saints offense crumbled.
This is no guarantee of success, but it is much better to force a QB to throw when you want him to and not when he wants to. When quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees are throwing on their schedule, bad things tend to happen to defenses.
The 49ers and Giants can win their divisional round matchups, but they cannot get into shootouts with the Packers and Saints. They might keep up for a while, but when that happens, the Packers and Saints have worn down opponents all season long.
The 49ers and Giants need to bring the pressure from the get-go. The Packers have done a worse job keeping Rodgers on his feet, but he also brings a scrambling ability that allows him to get a little bit more creative. The Saints are sending three offensive linemen to the Pro Bowl and have done as good a job as any offensive line keeping their QB on his feet. The 49ers have to game-plan around that and get to Brees. Aldon Smith and Jason Pierre-Paul must make Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers keenly aware of their presence.
It doesn't guarantee victory, but it is a significant step in the right direction.