The much-maligned Atlanta Falcons defensive end Kroy Biermann became one of several heroes in the team’s 24-20 win over the New York Giants on Sunday.
Biermann made two critical game-changing plays that either stalled or overturned Giants’ momentum in the second half, allowing the Falcons to climb back from their 20-10 deficit in the game’s final 25 minutes.
The first of those plays came on a third-quarter sack-strip of Giants quarterback Eli Manning when the Falcons defense was backed up on the goal line with the Giants poised to score. Biermann was redirected wide of the pocket by right tackle Marshall Newhouse, but kept working towards Manning from behind, hitting the passer and stripping him of the ball. Defensive tackle Paul Soliai fell on the loose ball at the nine-yard line.
It seems perfectly ironic that the first sack of the Falcons’ 2015 season would be recorded by Biermann, rather than the more hyped newcomers in Vic Beasley, Adrian Clayborn or O’Brien Schofield. All three players were brought in to help fix one of the league’s weakest pass rushes.
Instead it came from Biermann, who has earned a permanent spot in the doghouse for the majority of Falcon fans due to perceptions that he’s been overused and over-glorified by the previous coaching regime.
But he made arguably the biggest play of the game with his sack-strip of Manning. The Falcons proceeded to move the ball down the field and turn it into seven points on a drive that symbolized much of the changes that Dan Quinn’s new coaching staff wishes to bring on offense.
Diagraming a Falcons Scoring Drive
On the first play of the series, the Falcons dialed up tight end Jacob Tamme for a big play, earning 41 yards in one fell swoop to dramatically flip field position. That also marked the first play of the game where the Falcons offense was able to generate 20 or more yards on a single snap.
It came on a play-action play where the Giants defense was completely focused on Jones on a crossing route, drawing five defenders as pictured below. That allowed Tamme to slip out the back where Ryan located him for an easy completion.
Three of the Falcons’ next four plays after the big play to Tamme would be run plays to Devonta Freeman. While none would prove successful, it signified the sort of balance that Kyle Shanahan’s new offense strives to keep. The one non-run was a quick slant to Jones, who beat cornerback Jayron Hosley for 10 yards to keep the chains moving on third down.
With the Giants now keying on the run, the Falcons dialed up another play-action passing play. This time the ball went to wide receiver Nick Williams in the flat, who scrambled 12 yards after the catch for another first down with the third quarter about to come to a close.
The Falcons then turned back to Freeman and the running game, calling four straight runs now that they found themselves practically in the red zone. Two of Freeman’s next three runs would prove successful, and his fourth carry would also be if not for a penalty. On that fourth carry, Freeman burst off the right side on a counter play, breaking a tackle from Giants safety Landon Collins and running into the end zone for an 11-yard score. But it was called back due to a holding call on Tamme.
While the penalty wiped out the touchdown, it still showed the newfound physicality in the Falcons’ running game that has been sorely missing in recent years. It seems like an eternity (more accurately, three seasons) since the Falcons have featured an offense that could be successful in calling four consecutive run plays.
But despite the setback caused by the penalty, the Falcons went right back to Freeman on a screen pass, as the Falcons’ second-year running back lowered his head and fought for 11 yards, getting back the lost yardage from Tamme’s holding call. That play seemed minor at first, but showed a tremendous amount of resiliency. The Falcons were able to climb out of a 1st-and-20 hole on a player that killed a touchdown. Such a mistake seemingly would have killed past teams momentum, but this year’s Falcons.
The team then dialed up another quick slant to Jones that could’ve been a score if not for it being batted down at the line of scrimmage, marking the first red-zone attempt to Jones of the season. That’s notable given that Jones rarely saw such targets last season, with only a dozen passes thrown his way inside the opposing 20-yard line in 2014. As noted before, 38 wide receivers, 15 tight ends and four running backs saw more red-zone targets than Jones did last season. Given that Jones is now one of the highest paid receivers in the league, there should be a notable uptick in his red-zone targets in 2015.
On the next play, Ryan threw up a prayer to Leonard Hankerson in the end zone, with the new Falcons receiver making the leaping grab for a score. That play is notable because essentially Hankerson was not open with cornerback Trumaine McBride having good inside position in front of him. But depending on your outlook, Ryan either showed a tremendous amount of trust in Hankerson or poor judgment by firing it into a spot where he thought only his receiver could get it. Hindsight clearly shows us that Ryan’s decision proved to be the right one since Hankerson snagged it for the 10-yard touchdown.
But it also showed something that has also been missing from the Falcons at times in recent years, trust in reserve receivers to go up and make a play. Hankerson notably replaced Harry Douglas as the team’s third option on the outside this year. A noted weakness of Douglas over the years was his limited size and catch radius, making it hard for him to go and get a football when it wasn’t thrown directly at him. On one play against the Giants, Hankerson completely flipped that reality on its head, essentially making a score and catch that Douglas never could or would have.
Biermann’s Position Switch Signals Positive Changes in Falcons Coaches
With that score the Falcons had cut the Giants lead to 20-17 with little more than 12 minutes left in the game. Then on the subsequent Giants series, Biermann made another key play.
This time, Biermann came unblocked off the edge, stuffing Giants running back Rashad Jennings for a loss of one yard on 3rd-and-2. That forced the Giants to punt rather than putting them in field goal range.
Just like his earlier sack, this recent play came once again with Biermann playing the LEO position in the Falcons’ base defensive alignment. It’s a shift from what Biermann’s role was a week ago where he lined up at strong-side linebacker in the team’s base defense. Biermann was clearly miscast in that role, struggling to make tackles in the open field as well as in coverage against Philadelphia Eagles running backs Darren Sproles and DeMarco Murray.
Adjusting Biermann’s role after one week showed another change that makes Falcons fans hopeful about Quinn’s new staff. It indicates that this new staff won’t be as complacent as the old one was when things aren’t clearly clicking.
With the injury to Brooks Reed, it seemed like the Falcons had limited options at strong-side linebacker outside Biermann, yet the team found one this week in Nate Stupar. Stupar manned the strong-side spot for much of the Giants game and he too made a number of nice plays against the run.
If Biermann and Stupar both continue to play well in their current roles, it appears that the Falcons have found their short-term options until Reed returns from injury a month from now.
After Biermann’s third-down stop, the Falcons were unable to capitalize on their next offensive series to take the lead, but the defense stepped up on the next Giants possession to force a three-and-out. The first two plays featured Stupar and Biermann helping to make stops for minimal gains. Then the Giants were flagged for a delay of game penalty, turning a 3rd-and-7 into a 3rd-and-12.
What’s notable about that difference of five yards meant that chances that the Giants converted on the longer down-and-distance dropped over 15 percent. Based off game data collected since 2010, the average NFL offense is able to convert a 3rd-and-7 roughly 38 percent of the time. A 3rd-and-12 however gets converted just 21 percent of the time.
On that on 3rd-and-long, Justin Durant blew right past Preston Parker’s block on a bubble screen to Geremy Davis to force another Giants punt. That’s another notable difference from this year’s team than previous ones. Despite a low percentage of conversion rate for NFL teams as a whole on 3rd-and-12, teams had found a greater amount of success converting such down-and-distance against the Falcons. Since 2010, Falcons defenses allowed a conversion rate of 34.8 percent, which was second to last in the NFL in that span only ahead of the San Diego Chargers. So it’s worth mentioning that the Falcons defense didn’t have its usual collapse, another positive change for the team.
After the stop, the Falcons offense dialed up the heroes of the previous scoring drive with Freeman, Jones and Hankerson being targeted over the first four plays of the ensuing series. After the two-minute warning hit, the Falcons dialed up the only successful deep shot to Jones, who sped past cornerback Prince Amukamara for a 38-yard diving catch that set up the Falcons at the goal line.
That play came with 1:53 left on the game clock, meaning that the Giants had been successful at containing and limiting Jones from making plays down the field for 58:07. One of the keys going into the weekend’s game was going to be if the Giants could successfully do that. Unfortunately for the Giants, football games last 60 minutes.
The Falcons would of course eventually score on a two-yard run by Freeman to take the lead with 74 seconds left in the game and pull out the win.
Falcons Proved They Were More than One-Man Show
We saw in the last 20 minutes of the Giants game a lot of positive changes for the Falcons as they apply to 2015. Not only did a purported underachiever like Biermann step up and make a pair of game-changing plays, the overall defense got tough at the end to keep the Giants from scoring on their final four possessions.
That was almost never the case in 2014 where the defense seemingly always gave up points late in games. In the final 25 minutes of games last year, Falcons opponents had a total of 72 possessions. They scored on 35 of them (48.6 percent) and the Falcons created turnovers on 12 of them (17 percent).
Through two games this year, the Falcons have allowed just two scores on eight such possessions in the final 25 minutes of games, with two turnovers forced as well. While it’s a small sample size to glean from, it does show that so far this season the Falcons defense is substantially less prone to giving up points late in games.
That helps the Falcons offense be in positions to win games late, something that has been sorely missing the past two years in Atlanta.
That offense proved it was more than a one-man show with players like Freeman, Tamme and Hankerson making some important plays on offense that helped set up and led to Falcons scores. Of course the star of the Falcons offense in Jones would also not be denied with a pair of big catches, one converting on third down and another setting up a score.
That offensive unit showed a level of resiliency not often seen in Falcons offenses over the past two seasons, another big change for the team moving forward. Freeman stepped up in light of an injury to rookie running back Tevin Coleman, who left the game in the second quarter with a rib injury. After an impressive debut for Coleman last week against the Eagles, Freeman in his second action of the 2015 season threw his hat back into the ring to push for starting responsibility. Should Coleman miss more time in the upcoming weeks due to his injury, Freeman will have an opportunity to win back the starting job that he lost thanks to a preseason hamstring injury.
Tamme and Hankerson were two relatively low-key free-agent signings by the Falcons this offense. But added important complementary options around Jones that the Falcons lacked a year ago. With wide receiver Roddy White being shut down by the Giants defense and Jones also being limited to a degree by blanketed coverage, the Falcons needed their other top receiving options to step up and they did in those final 25 minutes.
Tamme took complete advantage of the focus that Jones draws from defenders, giving the Falcons their first big play of the game, and it unsurprisingly led to points for the team later on the drive. Hankerson also proved to be a trustworthy asset in the red zone, a major improvement over reserve receivers the Falcons had in the recent past.
Many of the sweeping changes that Quinn’s new staff are hoping to bring to Atlanta not only from a coaching standpoint but from a personnel standpoint came alive in the final half-hour of the Giants game and it was the difference between winning and losing.