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Giants vs. Falcons: What to expect when Atlanta has the ball

Veteran Matt Ryan is still the Atlanta quarterback — let’s see what he is working with

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Atlanta Falcons Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Falcons head to MetLife Stadium to face the New York Giants on Sunday in a battle of the defeated. Both teams are 0-2 and in desperate need of a victory. Falcons’ first-year head coach Arthur Smith has struggled to find an offensive groove without a bruising Derrick Henry type of running back.

Smith and the Falcons were held to just six points in Week 1 against the Eagles. The 49ers also struggled to score against the Eagles defense, so perhaps the unit is more robust than initially advertised. In Week 2, the Falcons scored 25-points, but Matt Ryan threw two fourth-quarter interceptions that were both returned for touchdowns.

Atlanta hasn’t established an offensive identity yet. The Falcons signed former Carolina running back Mike Davis to a two-year, $5.5 million deal, but he has only averaged 3.6 yards per carry. Smith has turned to former wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson as the change of pace back, and he now gets about a third of the work.

Smith utilized a heavy-run-oriented approach that set up a potent and efficient, play-action passing attack in Tennessee. It’s difficult to gauge the intentions of this offense because they have trailed significantly in both games.

Atlanta has rushed the ball 44 times in two games, and they’ve thrown the football 83 times. The Giants are 3-point favorites at home with an over/under of 48.5.

The Giants’ defense has allowed eighth-most yards against through two games. They have allowed an average of 413 yards per game, and their average last season was 349-yards per game, ranking 12th in the NFL. Let’s check out what Atlanta’s offense has to offer.

Quarterback

The 2016 MVP is in his waning years as an NFL quarterback, but Matt Ryan still brings his adept processing skills to the table. Ryan’s arm isn’t as strong as it once was, but it’s still NFL capable. He threw two brutal fourth-quarter interceptions last week against the Buccaneers. He was never a mobile quarterback, so expect Graham to bring interior stunts from either the edge defenders or linebackers - something he has attempted with regularity with Lorenzo Carter. Ryan has completed 56 of 81 passes (69.1 percent) for 464-yards, two touchdowns, and three interceptions.

Running back

Smith has used a two-back approach which isn’t unconventional at all. However, using a converted wide receiver as a goal line back isn’t exactly normal in today’s NFL. Mike Davis is the “number one” running back, and he’s a hard-running journeyman who found success with the Panthers after Christian McCaffrey’s injury last year.

Davis has 87 yards on 24 attempts (3.6 YPC). He’s also a good receiving back. He has 10 catches on 13 targets for 48-yards. Davis runs low to the ground and does a good job staying behind his pads and falling forward through contact. He’s not fleet of foot, but that’s where Patterson comes into the picture.

Patterson has NFL wide receiver speed and is a lightning bolt of energy who is developing as a running back. The nuances of playing running back are challenging to master. Still, Patterson’s return ability may assist him in the development: the ability to read holes, follow blocks, allow them to develop, etc.

Patterson is being used out of the backfield quite often - he has seven catches on nine targets for 71 yards and a touchdown. He also has 14 carries for 65 yards (4.6 YPC) and a goal line touchdown. Davis will handle more work than Patterson, but Smith has trusted Patterson with pass protection and goal line work.

Keith Smith is the fullback. The Falcons run a solid amount of multiple back sets, so Smith will see the field. He also has four targets on the season.

Wide receiver

Julio Jones is tough to replace - because he’s irreplaceable, but Calvin Ridley is a true No. 1 wide receiver for this team. When Jones was injured for most of the 2020 season, Ridley stepped up in a big way. He recorded 90 catches on 139 targets for 1,374 yards and nine touchdowns. He’s one of the better route runners in the league, and his play speed and explosiveness are much better than his second percentile broad jump and seventh percentile vertical jump would lead one to believe. Ridley has 12 catches for 114 yards and a touchdown on 18 targets this season.

Russell Gage is the No. 2 receiver. He was dinged up during the Buccaneers game but should be able to play on Sunday. Gage is an average NFL wide receiver who can align in the slot or on the boundary. He’s an adequate player but not one to game plan around - especially with Ridley and tight end Kyle Pitts on the field. Gage should see a lot of 1-on-1 matchups with Darnay Holmes and Adoree Jackson.

The undersized Olamide Zaccheaus mainly handles the slot for the Falcons in 11 personnel. Zaccheaus has excellent tracking ability, and he does a good job in contested catch situations despite his 5-foot-8 height. He only has three targets on the season, but I won’t be shocked to see Smith dial up a slot seam ball against middle of the field open defensive looks (Cover 2, Inverted Cover 2, Cover 6). The Giants have run a lot of these looks so far this season, and all their attention will be on Ridley and Pitts, so they have to be careful of the speedy Zaccheaus.

Former Tennessee Titans receiver Tajae Sharpe is the fourth option with Arizona State rookie Frank Darby injured. Sharpe’s a bigger-bodied receiver with long arms, but he struggles to create and maintain separation. He played 13 snaps last week against the Buccaneers. Kenny Golladay’s college teammate Christian Blake has also played in 18 snaps this season. He has one target that he secured for eight yards.

Tight ends

Star rookie Kyle Pitts looks the part, and he’s hungry to get in the end zone. I’m curious to see Graham’s answer for Pitts’ skillset. Jabrill Peppers struggled to corral the Denver duo of tight ends; while Noah Fant is incredibly underrated, he doesn’t have the same type of upside as Pitts, who has nine catches for 112 yards on 12 targets. New York is going to have to focus its coverage towards the middle of the field - a place they’ve struggled to defend through two games. This may force James Bradberry to shadow Ridley and allow Graham to devise a scheme to mitigate Pitts’ receiving impact.

Pitts can also do an adequate job blocking on the line of scrimmage. Some Giants’ edge defenders have struggled against the run, so the Falcons may be at an advantage running off tackle towards the C-Gap if the tackle doesn’t have to focus on the edge, and they can trust the tight end to handle that responsibility. Pitts may struggle against Lorenzo Carter or Azeez Ojulari, but Oshane Ximines may be an easier assignment for the rookie.

Atlanta traded for Hayden Hurst last offseason. He is an adequate blocker and a good tight end for a second option at the position. He provides a security blanket in the short to intermediate parts of the field. Smith uses 12 and 13 personnel groupings in an attempt to run the football and work the play-action passing game. Hurst is good in these situations since he can block well enough, and he can uncover against linebackers and some safeties.

The Falcons have Lee Smith and Parker Hesse on the roster, as well. They both play a handful of snaps every game, sometimes more, and they’re both big-bodied blockers who can seal edges and move bodies off the line of scrimmage. Hesse is 262 pounds, and Smith is 265 pounds. Expect the run or a really deceptive play-action pass when either of these tight ends are on the field in a heavy look.

Offensive line

The sixth overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft is still the bookend left tackle for Matt Ryan. Jake Matthews continues his excellent family lineage by being one of the better starting left tackles in the league. Matthews has only missed one game in seven years, and he’s done a much better job holding up at the point of attack through his career. His anchor and ability to drive players off the line of scrimmage have improved. He has allowed just two pressures this season on a team that trailed significantly in both games - meaning they had to throw a lot. Matthews is the bright spot on this average offensive line.

Jaylen Mayfield, the rookie out of Michigan, has struggled at left guard. Graham has to attempt to isolate Mayfield and take advantage of the neophyte. From what I’ve seen from his college film, he was raw from a technical standpoint. Mayfield has surrendered 11 pressures, including five hits and two sacks in two games. Both Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence should be able to control the interior portions of this offensive line.

Second-year Temple product Matt Hennessy is anchoring the center position, and he has given up five pressures and a sack on the season. I haven’t seen much of Hennessy play since his days at Temple, where he was a technically sound, average athlete type of player.

The right side of the line of scrimmage, with two 2019-first round picks, is solid. I liked Chris Lindstrom coming out of Boston College. He struggled a bit last season, but I remain optimistic about his development in Atlanta. I’m not as confident on right tackle Kaleb McGary. He’s massive - 6-8, 324 pounds, but he doesn’t have the quickest feet, and he can be vulnerable around the edge.

Final thoughts

The Giants desperately need to win this game. One can argue that these first three games on the Giants’ schedule were all winnable. The Giants were out-classed by Denver in Week 1, and Week 2 was a disastrous division loss for this Joe Judge-led team. Graham’s defense has seemed to regress, but this could be a strong bounce-back week for the unit.

The Giants couldn’t generate pressure with a four-man rush against Washington, but Williams, Lawrence, and these EDGE defenders can best this Falcons’ offensive line. I also believe that Graham will bring more five-man pressure packages. The defense has to figure it out and adjust against this middling Falcons team. This should be a bounce-back week against a team that should finish with a top-five pick.