By Eric from BigBlueInteractive.com
Approach to the Game – Atlanta Falcons at New York Giants, January 8, 2012: The goal each year is to make the playoffs. Once you are in the playoffs, you are one of 12 teams that can win it all. And anything can happen. A #1 or #2 seed and home-field advantage often means nothing. Everything that transpired in 2011 for the Giants was geared to this first goal – win the division and guarantee yourself a playoff spot. The Giants have done that and now begins the sprint to the finish. There is no best-of-five or best-of-seven series. Each playoff game is the season and the teams that played the best in the regular season often fail to finish.
Finish. That’s been THE rallying cry for Head Coach Tom Coughlin all year. Win the 4th quarter. Win the game. Now it takes on added meaning – finish in the playoffs.
The Giants should respect every team in the playoffs but fear no one. They have a franchise quarterback in the prime of his career playing his best football. They have dangerous receiving targets. They have a running game that while not overly impressive has shown signs of life and cannot be ignored by the opposition. And they have a defense that is getting healthier and more confident, and most importantly, can rush the passer without risky blitzes.
The time for hand-wringing is over. Believe in this team. Get behind them. Any team in the playoffs is capable of beating the Giants, but the Giants are capable of beating any of the 11 remaining teams. If you can’t get fired up for this, you’re following the wrong sport.
Giants on Offense: The Falcons have the NFL’s 12th-rated defense in terms of yards allowed (333.6 per game) and 18th-rated defense in terms of points allowed (21.9 per game). Atlanta is 20th in the NFL at defending the pass and 6th at defending the run.
Unless the wind is a big issue, those stats and the Giants’ own offensive strengths suggest that New York should come out attacking by throwing the football. The first key to that is to protect Eli Manning. The big match-up up front is LT David Diehl versus DE John Abraham (9.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles). While the Falcons have a lot of speed on defense, Abraham is their one consistent pass rusher.
I would not eschew the running game however. Atlanta’s defense is not a big, powerful unit. They are athletic, hustle, and run to the ball well. Inside, the Falcons don’t have a lot of size at defensive tackle with Jonathan Babineaux and Corey Peters. Moreover, SLB Stephen Nicholas, one of Atlanta’s better defenders, is expected to miss the game with a toe injury. MLB Curtis Lofton is a tackling machine inside (159 tackles). WLB Sean Weatherspoon is a very athletic and aggressive player who has been undergoing concussion tests. Assuming Weatherspoon plays, he can blitz (4 sacks), cover (8 pass defenses), and tackle (115 tackles).
In the secondary, LCB Brent Grimes has been bothered by a knee injury. If he can’t play, nickel back Dominique Franks will start. The right corner is Dunta Robinson, an athletic player who can cover. The safeties – William Moore and Thomas DeCoud – are good players, and Moore is a headhunter. The Giants may have good success in spreading the Falcons out with multiple WR sets, especially if Grimes can’t go or isn’t himself.
My model game plan would be what the Giants did in the first half against the Cowboys. Mix up the run and the pass and take what Atlanta’s defense gives you. If they pay a lot of attention to the wide receivers, throw short to the tight ends and backs (this might be more necessary if it is windy). Run the ball. And take your shots down the field too. I’d be real tempted to spread out Atlanta’s secondary and force them to cover Cruz, Nicks, and Manningham. The Giants obviously need to protect the football. Ultimately, the game will probably come down to the play of the two quarterbacks. The Giants need to protect Eli and allow him to do his thing. And the receivers need to hold up their end of the bargain. Keep in mind, none of the Giants’ wide receivers have ever played in playoff game. How will they respond?
Finally, I think it will be important for the Giants to score early. They did that against Dallas but have had issues scoring in the first half of many games this season. Atlanta tends to score a lot early in games and the Giants may need to keep pace.
Giants on Defense: The Falcons have the NFL’s 10th-rated offense in terms of yards (376.6 yards per game) and 7th-rated offense in terms of points (25.1 points per game). They are 8th in the NFL in throwing the football and 17th in rushing the football. As the stats suggest, they are pretty balanced.
The key to stopping a balanced attack is to stop the run first and foremost. However, Atlanta’s rushing figures are a bit misleading. HB Michael Turner had a huge day (172 yards) against a Tampa team that had largely given up last Sunday. Since Week 11, Turner has averaged only 56 yards per game in the last five games. That all said, you got to stop Turner from getting started. He’s a powerful back who runs very well between the tackles. The interior of the Giants’ defense needs to play tough and physical football.
On the other hand, Atlanta’s passing attack could present more problems for the Giants. That’s not only because the Giants are thin in the secondary, but because the Falcons have a good quarterback and some serious receiving threats. WR Roddy White has the big numbers. He caught 100 passes for 1,296 yards and 8 touchdowns. He’s had five seasons in a row with over 80 catches and 1,100 yards receiving. If that were not bad enough, coming on like gangbusters is first rounder WR Julio Jones who is averaging almost 18 yards per catch on his 54 receptions and 8 touchdowns. Jones is a tremendous athlete who can make the highlight reel catch. Last but not least is TE Tony Gonzalez, who is still going strong in the receiving department with 80 catches and 7 touchdowns. Those are the big three and they can be a nightmare to defend.
Outside, Corey Webster and Aaron Ross will have to be at their very best. The Giants have to be very fundamentally sound with their coverage. No mental mistakes please. Inside, special attention must be given to Gonzalez, who still sounds ticked off the Giants didn’t make a play for him in 2009. “I think about (possibly have ending up in New York) all the time,” says Gonzalez. “I was pushing for that, too. But it didn’t happen; I think they thought I was too old back then.” The good news for the Giants is that they have had to deal with two darn good tight ends in back-to-back games in Dustin Keller and Jason Witten. But Gonzalez is as experienced as it gets and he will use every tool in the book to get open. The linebackers and safeties need to limit his damage, especially on third down.
Matt Ryan is a very good quarterback and he has the ability to bring a team from behind (three 4th quarter comebacks in 2011 and 15 in his career). But the word on him is if you get in his face, he will press at times and make mistakes. Obviously, the Giants’ pass rush needs to be a factor. The Falcons’ offensive line has undergone some changes as the season has progressed. There really are no blue chippers headlining this group. They get by on technique (some say dirty technique) and effort. Tom Coughlin went out of his way to note that the Falcons have only given up 26 sacks this year. Interestingly, he also said they will often max protect and only send one or two receivers out and try to catch you napping with a deep ball. Obviously the big three receivers for Atlanta can beat double coverage. I would expect the Giants to stay true to form and not do a lot of blitzing. The key is this – can JPP, Tuck, Canty, Joseph, Umenyiora, Tollefson, and Bernard get to the quarterback on a consistent basis, even when the Falcons max protect?
Atlanta does two things well that the Giants need to address. First, they score a lot of points in the first quarter of games, often getting a good lead on their opponent. Secondly, they run a lot of no-huddle, which is something the Giants have had issues with in the past. The Giants need to be mentally and physically prepared for an up-pace tempo that will be designed to keep various defensive packages off the field.
Finally, Perry Fewell needs to be able to adjust on the fly here. He went into San Francisco expecting the 49ers to run the ball and the 49ers crossed them up by coming out throwing. I can see Atlanta passing early and often in order to cross up a Giants’ defense looking to stop the run. That’s what I would do if I was coaching the Falcons. Fewell and his players need to be ready for that. Look out for play-action and other misdirection early.
Giants on Special Teams: Many playoff games come down to special teams play. The key player on the Falcons’ special teams is Eric Weems. He is Atlanta’s kickoff and punt returner. He also is second on the team in special teams tackles. Atlanta’s placekicker is our old friend Matt Bryant, who is playing extremely well this year.
Will Blackmon has to focus on ball security first and foremost in this game. And the Giants need a better game out of Steve Weatherford than they got last week against Dallas. The Giants can’t afford another miss from Lawrence Tynes either.