Thus far this season, the Atlanta Falcons have alternated between promising victories and disheartening losses each week. If that trend continues, then it appears the team is poised for another victory this week against the New York Giants.
Considering their opponent, this is certainly a possibility but by no means a forgone conclusion. The Giants are a team that have been trending up, while many might suggest the Falcons are going in the opposite direction. That’s largely because of last week’s lopsided loss to the Minnesota Vikings followed by a bevy of injuries that have sapped the team’s roster within the past week.
The overall key for the Falcons offensively will be getting off to a fast start. Through nearly 17 quarters of play thus far in 2014, the Falcons have held a lead through a rough equivalent of five quarters, with the majority of that coming in their Week 3 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In their three other contests, the Falcons have held a lead for a little less than a combined 15 minutes. That will have to change this week if they hope to beat the Giants.
That is largely because the Falcons defense cannot be trusted at this point. Defensive stops have been hard to come by outside their win over the Bucs, as it seemed every time their opponent needed to drive the length of the field and score, they did so.
Being able to play with a lead will take pressure off the defense to have to get stops early on. The promising aspect of this matchup is the fact that the Giants themselves have struggled to start fast this year. They have generated just seven first-quarter points in four games. That lone scoring drive came last week against the Washington Redskins, and was greatly helped by a Kirk Cousins turnover that gave the Giants a short field.
The Falcons too have struggled to generate early points outside the Bucs game, but that will need to change this week. By scoring early, the Falcons can get the Giants out of their comfort zone and force them to play from behind, which is not something they are really built to do. While Eli Manning has been one of the better downfield passers in the league over the years, their new offense under coordinator Ben McAdoo has de-emphasized the vertical pass in favor of more ball control to try and prevent turnovers that have tended to come in bunches for Manning.
It has worked thus far with Manning completing a career-high 66.9 percent of his passes, and his current passer rating of 93.6 eclipsing the best of his decade-long career. But the Falcons would love for the “old Eli” to show up in this game, where the Giants begin to push the ball downfield, leading to turnovers for the Falcons defense. At this point, the Falcons defensive stops have largely been due to turnovers rather than forcing opponents to punt.
By playing with a lead, the Falcons can also feature their own version of ball control, which can also limit the exposure of their defense. That will be due to the team’s ability to run the football. The run game has been effective thus far this year, but just hasn’t been featured enough due to the Falcons’ need to try and play from behind most weeks. However, it remains to be seen if their success of the ground will remain given the injuries up front.
Center Joe Hawley, left guard Justin Blalock and right tackle Lamar Holmes will be out of the lineup this week. Hawley and Holmes have been lost for the season, while Blalock is nursing a back injury that will cause his 102-game streak of appearances to come to an end.
That pushes Peter Konz, Harland Gunn and Gabe Carimi into the lineup at their respective positions. Konz struggled through nine starts at center last season and will have an opportunity once and for all to prove that he’s a viable starter in this league. Gunn filled in at the end of the year at right guard and was impressive at times. He’s undersized, but similar to Hawley makes up for it by being extra aggressive. His move to the left side should prove more effective considering he’ll be less likely to be stuck on an island against Giants defensive tackles given the Falcons’ tendency to slide their protections to the left. He and Konz will be tasked with double-teaming Giants right defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins.
Carimi will draw a tough assignment against Mathias Kiwanuka and Robert Ayers on the outside. Kiwanuka plays left defensive end for the Giants in their base package, but often kicks inside to defensive tackle much like Justin Tuck did in passing situations, leaving Ayers as the outside edge-rusher on the left. Carimi fared well against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 2 at left tackle, but has been less productive during stints at left guard and right tackle in other games. Like Konz, he has a lot to prove as a former high-round pick that has disappointed thus far in his NFL career.
The Falcons will likely employ tight end Levine Toilolo and their running backs often to chip the Giants pass-rushers in order to beef up their protection. Improvement in pass protection has been one of the primary causes of the Falcons offensive explosion this season, as the team is among the league leaders in big plays through the first month.
The Falcons will have to continue to rely on that ability to generate big plays this week, attacking a Giants secondary that has been prone to give them up.
Julio Jones and Devin Hester will likely be the primary recipients of any big plays generated in the passing game by the Falcons. Jones will face a promising matchup against Prince Amukamara this week. Amukamara has been challenged deep a number of times throughout this season, and the Falcons hope Jones superior size and speed will be able to exploit that potential. But it’s likely given an injury that will keep Harry Douglas out of the lineup, and the questionable status of Roddy White’s health, the Falcons will have to find ways to “force feed” Jones the ball.
White was targeted 14 times last week against the Vikings, but only caught four of those passes while Jones caught six of eight targets a week ago. Ideally, those number of targets will flip with Jones seeing the bulk of Matt Ryan’s passes. The Falcons haven’t been overly consistent with their ability to make Jones a truly effective weapon every week. In both losses against the Bengals and Vikings, the Falcons usage of Jones seemed underwhelming. Finding ways to get Jones the ball early and often should help aid the team in getting off to theat much-needed fast start this week.
Hester will replace Douglas in the slot, where he could also see a favorable matchup against Trumaine McBride. Hester saw seven targets last week, catching five of them for 70 yards. He’ll likely need to see a similar workload this week. Hester has been a dangerous weapon downfield, and the Falcons might also find ways to utilize him as a rusher on reverses and end-arounds which have been effective, but underutilized this season.
Hester’s production is paramount given the questions surrounding White. White was not listed on the team’s injury report this week, which is a positive sign. However, he looked very much injured last week against the Vikings, struggling to separate from coverage and show any burst out of his breaks. It remains to be seen if the healthy week of practice will eliminate those problems, since those have been areas where White has struggled throughout this season, not just against the Vikings. He’ll be facing the Giants top cornerback in Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and given White’s play this year, probably cannot be relied upon to be a huge factor this week. However, if White can add anything significant to the Falcons offense this week, it will be considered a bonus.
Dealing with the Giants offense will be a tough task for the Falcons defense, thus why the team will need their offense to do a significant amount of the heavy lifting.
Giants tight end Larry Donnell has emerged as the team’s top target and an “X-factor” in the red zone and on third downs. His eight first-down grabs on third downs are tied for fourth in the NFL and actually outpace Jones.
Victor Cruz is another X-factor for the Giants, as he’ll be facing Robert McClain primarily in the slot. While Cruz’s hands have been iffy this season, he is a dangerous weapon when he does make the grab, averaging over nine yards per reception after the catch. McClain has mostly been effective making stops after the catch throughout his Falcon career, but has historically struggled against fast, explosive slot receivers like Cruz. McClain will need to step up and clamp down better than he did a week ago against Greg Jennings and Jarius Wright.
The Falcons may try and deploy free safety Dwight Lowery as their weapon to deal with Donnell. The Falcons often matched up Lowery on an island against Jimmy Graham in their season-opening win against the New Orleans Saints. While Lowery was beat a number of times, given that he was facing the league’s best tight end, in a relative sense he held his own. That would take pressure off the Falcons green safeties in Kemal Ishmael and Dezmen Southward, who will likely see increased reps due to the injury to strong safety William Moore. Ishmael is expected to start and Southward could be mixed into the lineup when the Falcons deploy their dime sub-package. Ishmael has proven himself to be a very capable tackler, but his questionable range and closing speed leaves concerns about his ability in coverage. He’s also proven much more effective when playing in the box against the run than trying to work coverage on the back end. Southward does possess plenty of speed and range, but his lack of experience could become problematic if the Giants can find ways to isolate him in coverage.
The issues at safety put more pressure on outside corners Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford to step up their game, as well as the team’s young linebackers as well. While Trufant and Alford should be fine facing Rueben Randle at wide receiver, many more questions surround whether the Falcons linebackers are ready to step up and become reliable playmakers.
Paul Worrilow has struggled thus far this season in the middle of the defense, getting pushed around quite a bit against the run. Both he and rookie Prince Shembo have shown the intelligence and awareness to be in the right position at the right time, but just haven’t been able to make the plays in those circumstances. That will need to change this week, as the Falcons face an explosive runner in Rashad Jennings.
Tackling has been a problem for the Falcons defense, and they will have to tighten up against the run. However, playing with a lead certainly will help matters, but at the end of the day the responsibility of stopping the run falls on the defense’s shoulders.
The Falcons should benefit from facing a relatively weak Giants interior offensive line. Left guard Weston Richburg is a rookie that is a more natural fit at center than guard. He could struggle against a veteran like Jonathan Babineaux. Paul Soliai, Tyson Jackson and Corey Peters should also get potentially favorable matchups against center J.D. Walton and right guard John Jerry. Soliai performed well against Walton when the latter was with the Denver Broncos in 2011, and Jerry is a former teammate of Soliai’s in Miami, offering some familiarity for the veteran nose tackle. Last week, the Falcons interior were pushed around too easily against the Vikings and will need to reverse that course this week.
The Falcons will need to find ways to generate pressure as well. Once again if the Falcons hold a lead, it will allow their defense to pin their ears back and get after Manning more easily. Osi Umenyiora makes his hopefully triumphant return to the Big Apple this week to face his old team. Whether that inspires him to have a stronger performance than he’s had for much of 2014 remains to be seen. But the Falcons might try and dial up more blitzes this week if they cannot reliably create pressure with just four rushers.
If the Falcons are forced to play from behind, given question marks surrounding their defense, it plays directly into the hands of the Giants. However, the fact that the Falcons are more explosive offensively does give them slightly better odds if they have to play from behind. But given the Giants lack of a dominant defense and their sluggish offensive starts this year, several signs suggest that the Falcons should be able to get off to the fast start they have failed to achieve in all but one game this season. If not, then it will not bode well for their ability to do so the rest of 2014.
This week’s game will be a litmus test on the team’s ability to respond to the adversity plaguing them given the multitude of injuries and whether they are a team that can take firm control of their destiny.