The Atlanta Falcons are coming off an impressive debut win, while the New York Giants enter this game off a disheartening last-second loss.
It appears to be the tale of two teams going in different directions at first glance, however the Giants are not a team that is simply going to lay down for the Falcons, and will be extra hungry to get their first win at home this weekend when the Falcons travel to East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Offensive Key For Success: Involving Julio Jones
After his monster performance against the Eagles, one can expect that a big focus for the Giants defense this week will be finding ways to contain Julio Jones. Thankfully for them, the Giants have one of the better pairs of starting corners in the NFL in Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Prince Amukamara.
While neither is the caliber of corner that can shut down Jones, both are good enough to contain him. And by “contain” that means limiting the number of explosive plays he can create. Jones had two big plays against the Eagles on go routes, beating cornerback Byron Maxwell both times. Jones was able to create much needed separation against Maxwell when the Eagles deployed Cover-1 looks (i.e. a single-high safety, leaving their corners man to man).
In the first GIF, you can see Maxwell does a decent job redirecting Julio at the line of scrimmage, but Jones is able to create separation on the vertical stem of his thanks to Maxwell’s poor technique. Maxwell turned to peer back at the quarterback, but did so over the wrong shoulder, which stopped his feet. With Jones running full speed, that moment of dead legs was able to allow the Falcons receiver to create the needed separation.
The second GIF shows Maxwell’s poor technique more clearly.
On this next view, you can see Jones just fly past Maxwell for a 44-yard bomb in the fourth quarter. Jones simply shook Maxwell off the line of scrimmage and was off to the races for a big gain.
However it’s unlikely that Jones will have such luck against Amukamara and especially Rodgers-Cromartie on Sunday. In going back and watching tape of last year’s Falcons-Giants game, one of the things I noticed was how effective Amukamara was at defending these vertical passes.
One the few occasions where the Giants gave the Falcons a Cover-1 look, quarterback Matt Ryan rightly looked for Jones. But Rodgers-Cromartie’s top-level sped and polished technique thwarted him both times.
In the first GIF, you see DRC get excellent inside position and is in perfect position to break up the deep throw to Jones.
In the second GIF, you’ll once again see DRC do a good job handling Jones speed on the vertical pass with good inside position. Ryan overthrows Jones, but in reality the Falcons quarterback put the ball in the only place where Jones could potentially be able to catch it and Rodgers-Cromartie couldn’t break it up. The point being, the Giants corner’s coverage was so good that it made for an extremely difficult completion.
If Rodgers-Cromartie and the Giants are successfully able to take away these deep throws, then the Falcons offense could be in some trouble.
Then the Falcons will have to be more reliant on the shorter throws to get Jones active in the offense. But unlike Maxwell and Nolan Carroll, Rodgers-Cromartie and Amukamara should be much more capable of containing Jones after the catch. The following GIF shows a play from last year’s Giants game where Jones makes a catch on a curl, but DRC is quick to close down on it to prevent yards after the catch.
So let’s be clear, Jones is going to get his catches and he’s going to get his yards. Despite Rodgers-Cromartie and Amukamara’s play, he still finished last year’s Giants game with 11 catches for 105 yards. But Jones was kept out of the end zone, and averaged just 9.5 yards per reception, which was the lowest he’s had in a game since October 2012.
So despite allowing over 100 yards to Jones last season, that still counts as a big win for the Giants. Their goal isn’t to keep Jones from catching the ball, it’s to keep him from making big plays.
As I’ve noted several times in the past, this Falcons offense’s success is going to be linked heavily to their ability to get big plays. If Jones can’t break loose, the Falcons are going to have difficulty generating big plays. And simply put, if the Falcons have difficulty generating big plays, they’re going to have problems generating points.
Offensive Key to Success: Running the Football
Perhaps the Falcons’ greatest asset to helping generating some offense if Jones is effectively contained by the Giants secondary will be their running game. The Falcons were able to generate explosive plays to Roddy White against the Eagles off play-action. If Jones is effectively contained, then a lot will fall on White’s shoulders to generate offense for the Falcons.
But that doesn’t look too promising despite the number of big catches White had against the Eagles. Last year against the Giants, White was virtually a non-factor. He did manage to snag a 22-yard play, but that came against Zack Bowman when Rodgers-Cromartie was out of the game briefly with injury. Other than that, he had one catch for four yards and that came essentially on a rub route by Jones.
This upcoming game is going to be an even stronger litmus test to see how much White has left in the tank. Amukamara is likely to draw plenty of assignments against him and he’s a much better player than Maxwell, Carroll or Malcolm Jenkins, who drew the majority of assignments against White last week.
In reality, White’s best friend this Sunday is likely going to be a healthy Falcons running game. If the Falcons can be able to run the ball effectively throughout all four quarters, it should open up some play-action opportunities that could help White beat a defender like Amukamara.
However that will be difficult because the Giants run defense looked very good against the Dallas Cowboys in Week One. They put the clamps on the Cowboys’ many attempts to maintain balance in their offense. The Cowboys finished the game rushing for just 80 yards, their second-lowest output since the end of the 2013 season.
The Giants’ stout run defense was led by players like Robert Ayers, Johnathan Hankins, George Selvie and Devon Kennard. There were numerous times where Hankins was able to use his size and power to overwhelm center Travis Frederick. And let’s be honest, Frederick is light years better of a player than Falcons center Mike Person.
The key for the Falcons is going to be able to hold guys like Hankins at bay at the line of scrimmage and hope they can do a better job getting blockers out on the second level to handle linebackers like Uani’ Unga and J.T. Thomas. That should help spring Falcons running backs Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman for longer gains if they can get to the second level.
But the issue is if the Cowboys offensive line can’t create those necessary seams for players like Joseph Randle and Darren McFadden, who similarly quick, fast runners as opposed to grinders, then it’s unlikely that the a lesser Falcons line will do so.
Thus the key for the running game may have less to do with what the Falcons do in the trenches than what they do on defense.
Defensive Key For Success: Avoiding Playing From Behind
One of the best ways a team can keep its balance on offense and keep the running game involved is by playing with a lead. When you get behind in games, teams predominantly throw to play catchup. We saw this exactly in the Falcons-Eagles matchup where the Eagles had quarterback Sam Bradford drop back to pass 52 times.
A major reason why the Falcons running game was often marginalized in 2014 was because of the defense’s inability to get stops and hold a lead.
Based off the play of the Falcons defense against the Eagles this past Monday, there’s a lot of reason to be optimistic that won’t be the case any longer. The Falcons defense got off to a fast start against the Eagles, forcing several three-and-outs and in the first quarter and limited the number of first downs.
The Eagles started that game only successfully converting one of eight third downs in the first half. There hasn’t been a third-down defense in Atlanta like that since God knows when.
Even though the chances that the Falcons find success running the ball against the Giants is low, they can still maintain balance and the luxury of choosing to run the ball if they aren’t forced to play from behind.
Coupled with the fact that the Falcons are playing on the road and their most potent weapon isn’t likely to dominate early like he did against the Eagles, it’s unlikely that the Falcons will come out firing offensively in New York on Sunday. As offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and the Falcons offense try to make adjustments to try and put points on the scoreboard, the Falcons defense will have to carry a sizable load by preventing the Giants from getting off to a fast start.
The Giants aren’t a traditional fast-starting team. Over the past three seasons, they are tied for 16th in the league in most first-quarter points at 229. That is almost perfectly ordinary as the league average since 2012 is 225 points. This should play in the favor
Defensive Key For Success: Creating Turnovers
Due to my expectation that the Falcons offense won’t be as good as it was in Week One, it’ll be important that the defense also can continue to create turnovers to give them more opportunities to score points.
It’s no big secret that Giants quarterback Eli Manning has a propensity to turn the ball over. He’s led the NFL in interceptions three times throughout his 11-year career. They seemingly come like clockwork as he did so in 2007, 2010 and 2013, i.e. every third year. Unfortunately based off his history, it’s likely 2016 rather than 2015 will be the next year that Manning gets excessively turnover-prone. But that doesn’t mean that the Falcons defense can’t do their part to force multiple mistakes from him.
The key is going to be creating pressure. While the Falcons pass rush managed to hit Bradford eight times in Week One, their pressure was for the most part average. But that’s somewhat forgiveable since they were facing a very capable Eagles offensive line with three Pro Bowl-caliber blockers in Jason Peters, Jason Kelce and Lane Johnson.
The Giants won’t have that luxury, particularly on the outside where the Falcons could potentially feast. Rookie Ereck Flowers and Marshall Newhouse man the left and right tackle positions, respectively. Flowers is nursing a bum ankle, but even fully healthy would have difficulty matching up with Vic Beasley’s speed.
Schofield should also have a much easier day trying to beat Newhouse rather than Johnson, as Newhouse has been one of the league’s least effective pass-protectors since entering the league in 2010. A declining Osi Umenyiora dominated Newhouse back in 2012, and thus a player like Schofield should feast as well.
That edge pressure should help put Manning on his backside all day. It’ll also lead to some errant throws and poor decisions, which the Falcons hope their playmakers on the back end can take advantage of. It may also lead to a couple of sack-strips.
If the Giants are fearful whether their pass protection can hold up to the Falcons pass rush, it’ll also help eliminate one of their biggest weapons: wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr.
Defensive Key For Success: Containing Beckham
Beckham is a player that moves around the formation but spends the bulk of his time on the right side of the Giants offense, which means he’ll likely draw assignments from Falcons left cornerback Desmond Trufant for most of the day. Just like the Giants hope Rodgers-Cromartie can do to Jones, the Falcons hope Trufant can limit Beckham’s propensity to hit big plays.
In re-watching the Giants game against the Seattle Seahawks from 2014, one thing that was notable was the Giants propensity to try and get Beckham involved on deep plays on the few occasions the Seahawks deployed a Cover-1 look on defense rather than their usual Cover-3.
Here’s another one two plays later on the same drive where Beckham is lined up in the slot against Marcus Burley. Once again with a Cover-1 look, he is able to get past the corner for a big 26-yard gain that sets up a goal-line touchdown.
Here’s an instance where the Falcons used their Cover-1 on the opening drive of the Eagles in Week One.
The play is an incompletion due to the fact that there was a miscommunication between Bradford and his tight end Zach Ertz, as Bradford throws the corner route when Ertz is running an out-and-up.
However, it’s worth noting that Trufant is isolated one-on-one against Nelson Agholor at the top of the image. There are going to be instances against the Giants this week, where that’s going to be Beckham instead. Unlike Bradford, Manning is almost certainly going to throw it to his No. 1 receiver every single time when he sees such a positive matchup. Those are going to be times where Trufant will have to show why he’s one of the league’s premier cornerbacks.
But it’s going to difficult for the Giants to hit the “long ball” if Manning spends most of Sunday afternoon on his backside. If the Falcons can dial up their pass rush in those situations where the Giants would like to send Beckham deep, then it will take pressure of Trufant and the Falcons other corners to be perfect in their coverage against one of the league’s premier receivers.
Stat Worth Monitoring: Success Rate
Anyone that has been a regularly reader of my columns over the years has known of my propensity to use success rate to measuring rushing production rather than yards per carry.
From my perspective, success rate is a more accurate way to measure the efficiency of a running game rather than simply looking at the average number of yards a team generates per attempt. That’s because the latter can be heavily skewed by one long run.
Success rate is basically determining each individual run on a “pass/fail” grade by determining based off down and distance whether the yards gained was successful or not.
For example, if a running back goes for 40 yards on his first carry, but then gets stuffed for no gain on his next four carries, he’s going to have a yards per carry of 8.0 yards. That would cause many to incorrectly conclude that he’s averaging eight yards per run, when in reality it’s much more likely that he’s averaging zero yards on the majority of his runs.
Contrastingly, success rate would better indicate how ineffective he was on his four of his carries, as he’d have a success rate of 20 percent, meaning 80 percent of the time he was not effective getting yardage.
Generally speaking, the way to determine if a run is a success is based off down and distance. On first downs, a play is considered a success if it achieves at least 40 percent of the necessary yardage for a first down. I’ve also read some that indicate it should be 50 percent. Personally, I don’t know who is right so generally split the difference and say 45 percent.
For second downs, it’s much clearer. Sixty percent of the necessary yardage for a first down is needed to count a successful run. So for example, a three-yard run on 2nd-and-5 would be a successful run.
On third downs, it boils down to getting the remaining yardage to convert for a first down.
Gaining large chunks of yards on the ground certainly will be important for the Falcons on Sunday, but “staying on schedule” will be even more so. That means being able to get into manageable down and distances, which is where the running game is mostly applicable to today’s pass-heavy NFL.
I think this will be much more of a defensive battle than probably many are predicting. I like the Falcons defense a little more however because I believe they are stronger at all three levels.
The Falcons’ pass rush should have a big game going against a pair of weak Giants tackles. But that alone may be the one really strong advantage that the Falcons have.
Offensively, the Falcons and Giants are roughly even. Their quarterbacks are roughly equal, they each have one dominant receiver and a bunch of mediocre ones surrounding him and neither team has a great offensive line or dominant running game. I believe the Falcons defense is better than the Giants, but not by a huge margin. It really just boils down to Paul Worrilow and Ricardo Allen over Unga and Brandon Meriweather as the two main players that separate the two defenses in overall talent level.
The biggest obstacle that the Falcons are going to have to deal with in this game is playing on the road. And Ryan is notoriously average when he gets outside the Georgia Dome. And considering he’s coming off a very lackluster performance at home against the Eagles, it doesn’t bode well for him or the Falcons offense if he’s not considerably better.
As I’ve stated above, I don’t expect Jones to have a monster game against the Giants defense. I think he’ll be productive, but I still have concerns about whether this offense isn’t still the “one-man show” that has existed in Atlanta the past two years. When Jones doesn’t dominate a game or isn’t making big plays, the Falcons offense has been routinely mediocre. It remains a question if that has changed. Based off Week One, the answer is no, it hasn’t changed very much. And that plays to the Giants’ advantage.
It’ll be important of Shanahan to showcase his abilities to get other playmakers involved and make them effective this week.
In the end, I do expect the Falcons to find a way to win largely because their defense should be able to make the plays, get the stops and create the turnovers that the offense will need.
Predicted Final Score: Falcons 20, Giants 17