Saturday, November 21, 2009

Game 10 Scouting Report


THE TEAMS: The Giants are coming off four straight losses and a bye. Although the bye came at a perfect time, allowing the players to get away from the losing and recover physically, they historically do not do well after byes. They are 5-15 following bye weeks since 1992, though they did pound Seattle after the bye last year. The Giants need this one if they're to capitalize on the huge break they got on the bye weekend when division rivals Dallas and Philadelphia both lost. "This game means a lot to us,” middle linebacker Antonio Pierce said. “For one, we need a win to get out of this four-game slump and, two, it will help us in the playoff hunt. We are tied for one of the wild card spots and you always want to win the head to head battles." The Falcons come off a 28-19 setback to Carolina and have lost three out of four. Their defense is one of the worst in the league, ranking 26th against the run, 28th against the pass, and 25th overall.

THE HISTORY: The Giants will be fighting against some odd history, as the visiting team in this series has won the last 12 meetings, the longest streak in NFL history. The last home team win came 30 years ago, on Nov. 11, 1979, when the Giants won 24-3 at Giants Stadium. The Giants have since lost five staight home games to the Falcons, the last three coming in 2002, '03, and '04. Atlanta leads the overall series 10-9, and the Giants are 1-5 at Giants Stadium. Incidentally, Eli Manning's first loss as a starter came against the Falcons, a 14-10 setback on Nov. 21, 2004.

INJURIES: Giants -- LB Antonio Pierce (neck) is out. CB Aaron Ross (hamstring) is questionable. RB Ahmad Bradshaw (foot and ankle), and QB Eli Manning (foot) are probable.

Falcons -- WR Brian Finneran (knee) is out. RB Michael Turner (ankle) is doubtful. WR Roddy White (knee), S Eric Coleman (knee) and RB Jerious Norwood (hip) are questionable. T Sam Baker (ankle) is probable.

WATCH THIS: The 11th-hour loss of Antonio Pierce could prove a devestating blow to the linebacking corps and the run defense. Though that unit will automatically become faster as Chase Blackburn switches over to Pierce's middle linebacker spot and either Jonathan Goff or Bryan Kehl go into the weakside spot to spell Michael Boley, they lose one of the smartest, savviest players on the entire defense. That's going to hurt, as Pierce was one of the best at sniffing out a play before the snap. Now they'll have to rely on sheer execution, which has not been a Giants' forte of late.
The Falcons' running game is in a shambles with 800-yard rusher and big-play guy Michael Turner out with a sprained ankle and backup Jerious Norwood doubtful with a hip injury. That leaves Aaron Stecker and Jason Snelling, two middling RBs that should allow a struggling run defense to pick up its game. "They are still going to run the football," defensive end Osi Umenyiora said. "They have an outstanding offensive line. I think Michael Turner is an outstanding running back, but I think their scheme dictates how many yards he is able to get. I think whoever is back there, if they keep running their same schemes, is going to be pretty effective. We don’t worry about who is back there. I think they are going to come in here and run the football anyway, no matter who they have got back there and we are going to be prepared for that."

Still, the overriding theme in Turner's absence will be an emphasis on the passing game. While the Falcons do possess a deep threat in Roddy White, whose 47 catches for 668 yards and six touchdowns leads the team, quarterback Matt Ryan could take more advantage of mismatches caused by tight end Tony Gonzalez. The Hall-of-Famer in waiting is a big, tough target who still has plenty of speed to outrun any of the Giants' three starting linebackers -- Chase Blackburn, Antonio Pierce, or Danny Clark. It would not be outlandish to expect rookie Clint Sintim to see significant time in place of strongsider Clark in obvious passing downs, as he is the only LB mobile enough to keep up with Gonzalez. Also likely, the Giants could also use safeties Aaron Rouse or Michael Johnson to cover him. Or, providing his hamstring holds up, returning cornerback Aaron Ross. Ross hasn't played this year, though, so assigning him to the powerful Gonzalez could be a dicey proposition. Then again, he's used to playing the slot receiver, so there is a comfort level there. "He is a tough matchup," defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan said. "He is a big third down guy for them. He is used to being covered by safeties, so that is not going to be anything different for him, and he is used to being double-covered a lot on third down. You see almost everybody they play against forms some kind of a double bracket on him on third down. None of that stuff is foreign to him and he still does a good job of shaking people off and getting to the first down marker and catching the ball." Gonzalez is tied for ninth in the NFL in third-down receptions with 15 catches for 175 yards (11.7 average) and two TDs.

A lot will depend on how well the pass rush is going. If Sheridan calls his plays with the most recent games in mind, he'll be very careful about calling blitzes and leaving the corners one-on-one against the fast White. It's imperative that Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora make some noise in the backfield. Matt Ryan is shakeable, but a pass rush that hasn't gotten home a lot needs to hit him hard. The second-year quarterback, looking far from the strong-armed worldbeater of his rookie season, has thrown 11 picks in his last six games, six in the last three. So he's perfectly capable of making the big mistake.

The defensive front will have to adjust to a different type of blocking scheme. Most teams block the man. This team zone blocks, which can create confusion up front. They're a veteran group, with center Todd McClure, starting his 121st consecutive game, anchoring it. The left side, where the bulk of the Falcons' running goes, is particularly formidable considering guard Tyson Clabo has 46 straight starts there. Sam Baker, at 6-5, 307, provides a mobile, strong presence at left tackle, but he may not play because of a bad ankle. The Falcons' offense ranks only 14th overall, at a 342.8-yard average.

Look for Sintim to be let loose on some blitzes, along with cornerback Terrell Thomas. If Sheridan is smart, we've seen the last of the zone blitz, which confuses no one anymore while taking one of the better pressurers, Tuck, out of the pass rush.

Offensively, Eli Manning may have turned a corner as far as accuracy goes against San Diego and must continue that through short, clock-controlling passing. Steve Smith will again be his go-to target, with Hakeem Nicks there for the big-play potential off the slip-screen and deep pattern. But first and foremost, the Giants must dominate the ground game. They need a big dose of Brandon Jacobs to keep the clock moving and create play-action effectiveness, especially when inside the Red Zone.

The Giants are tied with Oakland for 27th in Red Zone touchdowns, with only 15 TDs in 36 trips. The Falcons are 18th in the league in Red Zone defense, as opponents have scored 15 TDs in 28 trips. They've also sent opponents away empty seven times. Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride could switch strategies and allow Manning to throw it into the end zone on third down, something he failed to do against San Diego on the Giants' final possession even though an earlier such throw to tight end Kevin Boss worked perfectly.

The coaches would love to work Danny Ware into the regular offense to create another three-headed monster, ala Jacobs, Derrick Ward, and Bradshaw of the last two seasons. But they would be ill-advised to take carries away from Jacobs. With the weather getting nastier and the wind whipping up at Giants Stadium, Manning is bound to become less effective. They'll need to get Jacobs going regularly, in rhythm, to wear down the defense. But Ware could switch off with Bradshaw when Jacobs gets a rest.

Jeff Feagles spent the better part of the week practicing directional kicks. Luckily, this week there is no DeSean Jackson or Darren Sproles back there. Instead, Eric Weems, a solid but not spectacular returner, is the target. Feagles probably will keep more of his punts inbounds this week, allowing his coverage team to make plays against a returner who averages a healthy 9.1 yards per punt return, 13th ranked in the league. The Falcons have had an inconsistent performance from kicker Jason Elam, whose four of his five misses have come from 42 yards and in. His last miss came from 34 yards in last week's loss to Carolina. Just shows you that Lawrence Tynes isn't the only crapshoot in the league.

PREDICTION: The Falcons are an eminently beatable team anyway. And now, without Michael Turner, their offense should be even more vulnerable. The heat is definitely on the Giants, however, since this looms as a huge conference game. Lose this, and they've really put their backs to the wall as far as divisional and wildcard tiebreakers go. A setback here could define their season and set them on a non-playoff course. They need a win, and they'll get it even without Pierce. 35-17, Giants.



  1. 35-17???? A little early in the morning to be hitting the grapa isn't it Ernie? I like your optimism but what makes you think this team can score 35 points when their biggest offensive weapon has been Lawrence Tynes of late? The coaches continue down the same road of not running Jacobs enough, the defense lays another egg and makes Matt Ryan look like Joe Montana and we'll here Coughlin say "all is not lost" in his post game news conference. With a heavy heart I say Falcons 24-13.

  2. Good scouting report Ern. Blackburn is not much faster than Pierce though and I am looking forward to seeing if Goff/Kehl/Sintim can step up.