Oct 112002
 

Approach to the Game – Atlanta Falcons at New York Giants, October 13, 2002: Head Coach Jim Fassel was right on target with two messages for his team this week as they prepare to face the 1-3 Atlanta Falcons:

(Atlanta) should be 3-1. They missed a field goal to beat the Bears. They went into overtime and should have beaten the Green Bay Packers. I’m more worried about this game right now. We need to win this game. I want us to come off a big emotional win. I can’t emphasize it enough.

(Atlanta Head Coach Dan Reeves) is going to keep it pretty tight to the vest. He is going to try to capitalize on our mistakes and be physical and dominant with his offense and…try to gain field position (with defense and special teams). It is our job not to let that happen.

Giants’ fans may not be aware of the first point – Atlanta is far better than their record indicates. However, Giants’ fans who remember Dan Reeves know the second point is right on the mark. Dan Reeves’ teams are not flashy, but they usually don’t beat themselves. Dan will try to run the ball, play solid defense and special teams, and then prey on the mistakes of the opponent. He will also use a tiny bit of flash or trickery (Reeves loves using at least one trick play such as a flea flicker or a shuttle pass, etc.). Reeves is a super-competitive guy and you know he wants nothing more than to beat his former employer.

I have a number of worries about this game:

  1. The Giants are not 100 percent sure if QB Michael Vick will play. Many of the defensive players think he will. But if he doesn’t, I’m fearful that the defenders will unconsciously let up a bit. That would be unwise. The Falcons have enough offensive weapons to still hurt the Giants who have a lot of defensive players hurt.
  2. Fassel’s teams have an outstanding 11-2 record before the bye week, but the Giants are coming off of an emotional divisional game and are very beat up. They have a huge game coming up against the Eagles after the bye. The attitude may be “Let’s just get out of this game healthy”. Let’s hope not. The Giants have two losses in the conference; the Eagles have none.
  3. Turnovers. This is the great equalizer. Tiki Barber has fumbled the ball twice in two weeks. Kerry Collins was responsible for two fumbles last week and an interception. Reeves will count on the Giants to turn the ball over.

Giants on Special Teams: The Giants face yet another dangerous kick and punt returner this week: the shifty and fast Allen Rossum. As Fassel said, Reeves counts on winning the field position war each week. The Giants need to keep Rossum under control.

In their own return game, Delvin Joyce flashed a couple of times last week and would benefit from better blocking on his kick and punt returns. Tim Carter is also now back their with Joyce on kick returns and he has the speed and field vision to break a big return. Again, he needs help from the men in front however.

Giants on Defense: The Giants are really beat up here. DE Kenny Holmes (elbow) is most likely out. DE Frank Ferrara will start, but expect DT Cornelius Griffin to get a few snaps at the right defensive end spot too. DE Michael Strahan was bothered a bit by a shoulder injury but will play. DT Keith Hamilton (groin) and Griffin (knee) are probably still not 100 percent. DT Matt Mitrione (shoulder) is out. The defensive line obviously needs the bye week to come up in a hurry.

But the concerns don’t stop there. MLB Mike Barrow has a sore ankle and WLB Dhani Jones has a sore hamstring. And most important of all – CB Will Peterson has a dislocated toe injury that will linger with him all season. He may not play on Sunday. If he doesn’t, the inexperience Ralph Brown or the gimpy Jason Sehorn will start in his place.

Not a pretty picture.

The dynamic of the game changes dramatically depending on whether Michael Vick or Doug Johnson starts. Vick is the most dangerous scrambler in all of football and he has a rocket for an arm. Johnson is a pocket passer. If Vick plays, the Giants have to keep a spy on him and will be forced to discipline their pass rush – thus making it tougher to rush the passer. If Johnson plays, they can use a wider variety of pass rush moves. HOWEVER (and this is a big however), pocket passers are often more effective because they will stand in the pocket longer and not give up on a play too soon. Johnson will look to hurt the Giants with his arm and not his feet. This is also the very real concern that the Giants will experience a big emotional letdown if Johnson plays. If the letdown is too great, the Giants will lose this football game.

Regardless, Dan Reeves is a run-first coach. He will attempt to pound the Giants with a power approach using T.J. Duckett. Look for him to really go after Ferrara and the weakside linebacker (be it Dhani Jones or Brandon Short – again the Giants often flip-flop these two). When Griffen lines up outside, they will likely test Lance Legree in the middle. The ability of the Giants’ defense to limit the damage of the ball carriers on first and second down will largely determine their defensive success or failure. A big key will be the ability of the linebackers to avoid the lead block of fullback Bob Christian.

The Falcons are have Warrick Dunn, but the team seems to be shifting more to Duckett now. Still, Dunn is a dangerous player, especially as a receiver. Linebacker coverage on him will be very important. A big worry to are the Atlanta tight ends. Alge Crumpler and Brian Kelly are both fine two-way tight ends. Crumpler in particular can make big plays in the pass game. SS Shaun Williams and the linebackers will be very much tested by these guys – especially on play-action. That’s my biggest defensive concern in this game – play-action passes to the tight ends. Also, the Giants need to keep a wary eye on 3rd stringer Brian Kozlowski. In certain rare situations, the Falcons like to sneak the ball to Kozlowski when defenses are often found napping.

The Atlanta receivers are ordinary. But Brian Finneran is 6-5. If Sehorn can back-pedal now (and he says he can), I would lock Sehorn up on him due to the fact that Sehorn is taller than Ralph Brown. However, since Finneran is normally the “Z” receiver (lines up on the strongside), that would involve shifting Will Allen to the other spot, and I don’t think the Giants will do that. Willie Jackson is usually the “X” receiver. It will be interesting to see if Reeves comes out throwing in order to test Sehorn and Brown in the nickel package, but that is not Reeves’ style.

Up front, Ferrara faces experienced veteran Bob Whitfield, a former pro bowler who is starting to show his age. RT Todd Weiner did a very good job on Michael Strahan last season when he was with the Seahawks (one of the main reasons why the Falcons signed him in free agency was his performance in that game). Hamilton will battle LG Travis Claridge – this is a match-up Keith should win if he comes prepared to play. Griffen and/or Legree will face back-up Kynan Forney – again this is a match-up New York needs to win.

Giants on Offense: With TE Jeremy Shockey (turf toe) likely out, the way teams will defend New York now changes. Teams will not feel threatened by Dan Campbell or Marcellus Rivers in the passing game and will now make it much more difficult for Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard to get open. To me, this is the perfect situation for Offensive Coordinator Sean Payton to pull out all those fancy plays to his role players – specifically H-Back Sean Bennett, WR Ron Dixon, and WR Tim Carter. If I’m the Giants, I try to lock Bennett up on a linebacker and I use more 3- and 4-wide receiver sets. Dixon and Carter have a tremendous amount of speed and that will put a lot of pressure on ANY secondary. That will help to open up things for Toomer and Hilliard underneath.

The thing that makes Atlanta tough defensively is that they play a 3-4 defense and the Giants are not used to seeing this type of scheme on a regular basis. No one in the NFC East runs a 3-4. Tiki Barber says the difference in a 3-4 defense against the run is: “There are bigger initial holes in there. The difference is, there are more athletes pursuing you because there are four linebackers instead of three. They may concede giving up two or three yards because of the gaps in the defensive line, but the big plays are harder to come by.”

The defensive ends on Atlanta are not your typical “boxy” 3-4 ends. They are more athletic like 4-3 ends and thus are not strong run defenders. LT Luke Petitgout will face DE Patrick Kerney – a former first round pick. RT Mike Rosenthal will battle DE Brady Smith. Both can get after the passer. Inside, a big match-up will be OC Chris Bober against NT Ed Jasper. Bober has not played well this year with a tackle lined up right over his head and this match-up scares me a bit. Bober may need double-team support. The ability of guards Rich Seubert and Dusty Zeigler (or Tam Hopkins) to get out on the linebackers will also be crucial.

That’s where the strength of the Falcons’ defense is – in the linebacking corps. ILB Keith Brooking is one of the best linebackers in the game. He can do it all – play the run, blitz, and cover. Fellow ILB John Holocek is familiar with Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips’ scheme from Buffalo. Matt Stewart is the strongside linebacker. Will Overstreet is a rookie and a converted defensive lineman, so I would go after him pass coverage. Sam Rogers – another ex-Bill – plays quite a bit as well.

The secondary is without CB Ray Buchanan (suspended for steroid use). His back-up, Juran Bolden, will be facing Ike Hilliard. Ike needs to dominate this battle. The other corner is Ashley Ambrose – solid player who will line-up against Amani Toomer. Kevin Mathis – the nickel corner – is an ordinary player at best. This is why I would get into quite a few 3- and 4-wide receiver sets.

The big thing for the Giants is to not turn the ball over or pile up penalties. If the Giants don’t do these things and Kerry Collins plays well, the Giants’ offense should do alright – even without Shockey.

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Eric Kennedy

Eric Kennedy is Editor-in-Chief of BigBlueInteractive.com, a publication of Big Blue Interactive, LLC. Follow @BigBlueInteract on Twitter.

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