There are a few questions that the Falcons must be able to answer on Sunday if they want to win their first playoff game under Mike Smith and beat the New York Giants.
1. Can the Falcons stop Victor Cruz?
The biggest potential mismatch for the Falcons in their secondary is their nickel corner on Victor Cruz. Cruz is the Giants top receiver, leading the team in catches (82), yards (1536), and touchdowns (9). The Falcons will be putting Dominique Franks in the nickel. Franks has had his moments in recent weeks, but has also had his issues working at the nickel. A notable issue was last week against the Bucs, where Franks was beat by Preston Parker for a 48-yard completion while working out of the slot. Plays like that cannot happen this week. The Falcons don’t need Franks to shut down Cruz, but just contain him similar to the Redskins did in Week 15 where he only caught 5 passes for 44 yards, which was one of the weaker performances of Cruz all year long.
2. Can the Falcons slow the Giants pass rush?
The other matchup that could cause potential problems for the Falcons is trying to slow down the Giants pass rushers: Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Osi Umenyiora. Tuck hasn’t had quite the season he is used to having with 5 sacks, but he’s still a tough matchup for any right tackle, and Tyson Clabo will have his hands full. Last time the Falcons played the Giants, Clabo gave up two pressures to Tuck. But the biggest question probably comes from the Falcons left tackle Will Svitek and whether he can face Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora. Pierre-Paul led the Gaints with 16.5. Umenyiora managed 9 sacks in 9 games, and came back in Week 17 after missing several games with an ankle injury to get a pair of sacks in a key game against the Cowboys. Svitek started strong when he first subbed in for Sam Baker at midseason, but down the stretch his play tailed off.
The Falcons are probably going to have give each of these guys a bit more help, by playing a few more times in max protection, where tight ends and backs stay in to chip and help slow those guys. Which will put more emphasis on the Falcons receivers to separate and get open.
3. Can the Falcons pound Michael Turner?
One the ways the Falcons can help slow down the Giants pass rush will be if they can effectively run the ball. Turner had a strong performance against the Bucs in Week 17, but the Bucs were one of the league’s worst run defenses. The Giants are better, but not exactly a strong in run defense. So the potential is there for the Falcons to be able to control the clock and tempo with a running game. The issue the Falcons face is that prior to the Bucs game, Turner had five pretty mundane performances, including two road games against Houston and New Orleans, where he was virtually a non-factor. That cannot be the case against the Giants, where the Falcons are going to need Turner to have success early, and be able to carry that through the rest of the game.
4. Can the Falcons get Julio going?
Jones had a strong finish to the year, and his ability to make the big plays was a big reason why Ryan’s passing improved down the stretch. The Falcons will need Jones to be able to provide many of the big plays he’s had in recent weeks. Being able to make plays after the catch could be important, as Matt Ryan may not have all day in the pocket, so Jones will have to turn short passes into long gains. The Falcons could tinker with the idea of putting Jones more in the slot as well to try and create some mismatches between him and the weaker members of the Giants secondary. His first touchdown against the Bucs came when working out of the slot. If the Falcons try and put one of their safeties like Antrel Rolle in the slot against Jones, that could be a mismatch that really favors the Falcons.
5. Can the Falcons get after Eli?
Just like a key for the Giants will be to pressure Ryan, the Falcons will need to find ways to pressure Manning. Manning’s propensity to turn the ball over (41 interceptions over the past two seasons) is often tied to how much pressure the opposing team can bring. Unfortunately for the Falcons, their pass rush has been fairly marginal in recent weeks. John Abraham has been the only Falcon defender that can reliably get pressure down the stretch. He’ll have to find ways to beat David Diehl, who hasn’t had the best season at left tackle. But Abraham cannot do it all by himself, and the Falcons will need guys like Ray Edwards, Jonathan Babineaux, and Corey Peters to step up their play. Those guys have been awfully quiet over the last month of the season, and that has to change if the Falcons are going to want to force any turnovers.
The Falcons are going to need to run the ball on offense to slow down the Giants pass rush, and get pressure on Manning in order to potentially slow down Victor Cruz and their passing attack. If they can get turnovers, they also increase their chances. The Falcons are going to have to play their usual way to beat the Giants, but they will need to find ways to make adjustments to try and offset the mismatches that favor the Giants and those that favor themselves.
This is not a game where either team is going to bend over backwards to try and outscheme the other. It’s just coming out, playing their styles of football, and seeing which teams can do that better than the other. The Falcons and Giants on a neutral field are relatively equal opponents. But can the Falcons go on the road and be able to execute their gameplan? That has been a lingering question under the Mike Smith Era, as the Falcons too often seem to be dramatically different team at home vs. on the road. That needs to change if the Falcons want to pull off their first playoff win under Smitty, and there is no time like the present for that to happen.