Giants' juggling act works at cornerback

Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo turned himself into a hot NFL head-coaching candidate by making big changes to the way the team plays defense.

He creatively ramped up the pass rush by using four defensive ends in passing situations. He called more aggressive blitzes, many learned from Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. In the secondary, the most welcome change was a switch to man-to-man coverage for cornerbacks.

The only problem with the Giants' coverages is figuring out who is the man. Because of injuries and poor play, Spagnuolo has juggled five starting cornerbacks this season. And even heading into the Super Bowl, it's uncertain who's going to line up in press coverage against Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte' Stallworth.

In the first two playoff games against Tampa Bay and Dallas, Spagnuolo started Corey Webster and rookie Aaron Ross at corner. Against the Packers, he started R.W. McQuarters and Webster.

Yep, that's the same Webster who began the season as a starter, was demoted to backup and twice was deactivated in favor of other cornerbacks. Webster and Ross might be the starters in Super Bowl XLII, but there is no guarantee, and the team doesn't seem particularly concerned.

"When something happens, we have other guys who could relieve,'' cornerback Sam Madison said. "It's good to have some combinations, and we have a lot of different combinations. We can do a lot of different things.''

The NFC Championship Game win over the Packers was an example of the secondary's resilience. Madison was benched after getting a personal-foul penalty for sparring with Packers running back Vernand Morency. Webster was burned for a 90-yard touchdown catch-and-run by Packers receiver Donald Driver but came back to make the game-changing interception in overtime. Overall, they held Packers QB Brett Favre to 19-for-35 passing for 236 yards and a 70.7 quarterback rating.

"This is the best group I've played with,'' said Madison, an 11-year veteran who has played mostly man-to-man coverage during his NFL career.

Heading into the playoffs, critics wondered about the Giants' depth at cornerbacks and how well they would match up against opponents because of injuries. Kevin Dockery, who started four games in the regular season, missed all three playoff games with a hip injury. Madison missed two playoff games with an abdominal strain suffered in the Week 17 loss to the Patriots. Ross, a rookie first-round choice from the University of Texas, suffered a shoulder injury in the playoff game against Dallas.

But New York's corners are getting healthier. And even though Spagnuolo may not have a Champ Bailey to shut down Moss, the Giants will be competitive against New England's receivers.

A year ago, the Giants' corners grumbled about playing the zone schemes implemented by former defensive coordinator Tim Lewis. Every Giants cornerback is more experienced in man-to-man than zone. They wanted to attack, and Spagnuolo freed them to do so this season.

"The majority of what we play now is man-to-man,'' Madison said. "Spag came in here and we had some good corners who can play man. We brought in Aaron Ross, who can play man. All Corey Webster played at LSU was man. We are about a 70 to 80 percent man team. Man, it's fun.''

Madison has been a man-to-man specialist since Jimmy Johnson drafted him 11 years ago for the Miami Dolphins. Man-to-man coverage is something of a lost art because of the proliferation of Cover 2 defenses, which provide help for corners with safeties. And most 3-4 teams prefer zone coverages because of the zone blitzes.

"This is great here because I'm doing the stuff I did in Miami,'' Madison said. "It's fun.''

It's pretty apparent Spagnuolo learned Jim Johnson's schemes in Philadelphia well. In Philadelphia, Johnson, whom Spagnuolo worked under for eight years, is the master of surprise blitzes. In the early days in Philly, he used to match Troy Vincent, Bobby Taylor and Al Harris in man coverages against opponents. Now, he uses Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown. Using man-to-man frees an extra defender to either help stop the run or blitz.

The key is keeping offenses guessing and being aggressive. Giants corners are thrilled with the concepts.

"At LSU, Nick Saban ran a pro-style system with a lot of bump-and-run man,'' Webster said. "It was crazy with all the bump-and-run, but it was fun. It made the transition easy to the NFL."

What also helped was having Madison and McQuarters, who both have more than a decade of coverage experience in the NFL.

"They taught us to prepare like you're a starter even when you aren't starting," Webster said.

Including the playoffs, Madison has started 16 games, Ross 11, Webster five, Dockery four and McQuarters one, but each of the five cornerbacks is prepared for anything. At one point in the NFC Championship Game, Madison was benched, Webster was being treated for a tight muscle and Dockery was out. McQuarters had to line up in man coverage at the age of 31.

Normally, defenses that play 70 to 80 percent man coverage rank near the top of the league in defensive penalties. For instance, the Packers are primarily a man team and they led the league with 12 interference and eight illegal contact penalties during the regular season. But the Giants play the scheme with control; they were near the bottom of the league with only five combined penalties.

By spreading the playing time to five cornerbacks, none of the Giants' corners has been abused. Madison, despite being 33, was beaten for only one touchdown this season. Webster was beaten for only 11 completions during the regular season, but he only started three games. Ross had nine regular-season starts and was beaten for seven touchdown passes, but he improved as the season progressed.

"Lining up in so much man is one of the reasons I have been so successful,'' Madison said.

To a man, they are a happy group.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.