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Giants vs. Falcons: What to expect when the Giants have the ball

What should we expect from the Falcons’ defense?

NFL: New York Giants at Washington Football Team Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants have started another season with an 0-2 record. However, they have a good opportunity to notch one in the win column this week against the Atlanta Falcons.

Atlanta is another 0-2 team, getting routed in their season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles and their own mistakes costing them against the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

This week is also when the Giants will be retiring Eli Manning’s jersey, adding further significance to the game.

The Falcons’ defense isn’t what anyone would call “formidable” and that fact has been a constant source of frustration for Falcons’ fans. But are they as bad as the team’s lopsided losses have made them look?

Two must-win matchups up front

If the Giants are going to win this game, it’s going to start up front.

It seems as though we have to start with this statement every week when it comes to the Giants, but it always seems to be applicable.

The Giants’ offensive line faced two difficult matchups to start the season in the Denver Broncos’ and Washington Football Team’s front sevens. Their defensive fronts are among the best in the NFL, with difficult combinations of size, strength, athleticism, and technique.

The Giants should get a more favorable matchup this week against Atlanta’s defensive front. While the Falcons aren’t of the same caliber as the Broncos or Washington, they shouldn’t be ignored up front, either.

Atlanta uses what is basically a four-man front, but they typically only use two down linemen with two stand-up rushers in their base defensive package. Their most common defensive personnel package is a 2-4-5, with two down linemen and a pair of stand-up edge defenders. That effectively makes their base package a 4-2-5 nickel look, but allows them to execute some interesting blitzes.

We’ll get to those blitzes in a minute, but first let’s look at the two must-win match-ups along the defensive line.

The first is against edge Dante Fowler Jr. on the outside, and the second is against Grady Jarrett on the interior.

Fowler is, by far, Atlanta’s most dangerous pass rusher, with the versatility to rush from both a two- or three-point stance. He’s a compact, powerful rusher at 6-foot-2, 260 pounds and can move offensive tackles backward when he plays with good leverage. But what makes him truly difficult to defend is his first step and explosiveness off the line of scrimmage. Fowler’s burst jumps off the screen and he can have some eye-popping reps when he times the snap well.

Jarrett is a similarly compact defensive lineman at 6-foot, 305 pounds, and boasts impressive explosiveness off the line of scrimmage. A former fifth-round pick, Jarrett has been one of the more disruptive defensive tackles in the NFL. Jarrett landed in the top-10 of both pass rush win rate (third among defensive tackles) and run stop win rate (eighth among defensive tackles) in 2020. Jarrett is capable of both clogging interior gaps as well as penetrating with burst and technique. His blend of power and explosiveness can make him a handful for interior offensive linemen despite his lack of great length.

Circling back to Atlanta’s unconventional front, the explosiveness of Fowler and Jarrett can make the Falcons’ blitzes disruptive. In particular, they made good use of delayed blitzes in their first two games. By keeping their edge defenders on their feet, they can drop either into coverage while the offensive line is forced to account for Fowler and Jarrett. That can create opportunities for an unblocked rusher if the defense replaces the defender dropping in coverage with a linebacker or defensive back. The Falcons typically rush four defenders, but the offense needs to be on guard for one of those rushers to come from an unexpected position.

Run defense?

The Falcons’ run defense hasn’t performed particularly well through the first two weeks of the 2021 season. They’ve given up a total of 255 yards on the ground and have a run stop win rate of just 29 percent (23rd in the NFL). Granted 173 of those yards came in the first week to the Philadelphia Eagles, but both of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ rushers averaged at least 4.5 yards per carry.

That would seem to bode well for the Giants’ offensive line, Saquon Barkley, Devontae Booker, and Daniel Jones.

The Giants should be able to find success on the ground and finally get their running game going against Atlanta’s defense. That said, Atlanta’s run defense might be better than what we’ve seen through the first two games.

The presence of Jalen Hurts and a solid run blocking offensive line makes the Eagles’ run game difficult to counter. The Buccaneers’ offense is one of the most potent in the whole NFL, scoring at least 30 points in their last nine games. They have a solid run blocking offensive line and boast a plethora of weapons in the passing game, which forces defenses to choose between stopping the run and defending the pass.

The Falcons’ front can certainly get moved off the ball, but the athleticism of Fowler and Jarrett can disrupt plays in the backfield. Likewise, much of their scheme is predicated around rallying to the ball. Atlanta is usually in a Cover 2 shell, which limits them to seven-man boxes, but also allows much of their defense to play downhill.

And they do a pretty good job of rallying to the ball. Neither Leonard Fournette nor Ronald Jones II had a run of more than 10 yards last week, and the Atlanta defense swarmed to the ball when the game was close through the beginning of the fourth quarter.

The Giants will need to sustain their blocks at the second level if they want to take advantage of any motion they’re able to generate off the line of scrimmage.

Scheme Cover 2 beaters

As noted above, the Falcons like to play Cover 2 defenses. This year they’ve played Cover 2 on roughly half of their defensive snaps, with the remainder split between Cover 1 and Cover 3.

The fact that the Falcons’ keep their coverages simple could create opportunities if the Giants’ offensive line is able to hold up along the line of scrimmage. Cover 2 defenses are generally balanced and safe, but they’ve been around for about 50 years at this point. There are some well-known counters and coverage beaters that are in every offensive scheme.

In particular are routes up the seam, splitting the deep coverage safeties.

And as of this writing, tight end Evan Engram is practicing for the Giants and has not been ruled out of the game. Engram’s athleticism and ability to get vertical (assuming the Giants choose to let him do so) are almost ideal for attacking both Cover 2 and Cover 3 defenses. This could game could set up to be a fantastic opportunity for Engram to make his 2021 debut.

The Giants can’t take the Falcons’ pass coverage for granted, however. They are an opportunistic defense and were in position to take the ball away from the Buccaneers four different times last week. While they only came up with one turnover, they forced two fumbles (including a strip-sack by Dante Fowler) and had a pair of “shoulda-been” interceptions bounce off defenders’ hands.

As always, ball security will be of paramount concern for the Giants’ offense. Not only do ball carriers need to secure the football, but passes will also need to be well-placed as well as on-target.

This is a game that is absolutely winnable for the Giants, but they can’t underestimate their opponent nor be reckless if they want to provide a proper setting for the retirement of Eli Manning’s jersey.