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.