When you're 2-2, three paths lie before you. You can continue to alternate wins and losses and end up around .500, you can crash and burn in spectacular fashion or you can build a better team after sizing up the mistakes you've made to turn in a quality season. For the Giants and Falcons, all three possibilities are in play, and we can perhaps get a sense of where each team is headed by 4 p.m. on Sunday.
It's not looking fantastic for the Falcons right now, I'll say that. With William Moore out for most of the year, Joe Hawley and Lamar Holmes joining Sean Weatherspoon and Sam Baker on injured reserve and the general state of disarray for the defense, this team is going to have to dig mighty deep to stay afloat. It can be done—hope springs eternal—but we've got to be reasonable with our expectations.
Suffice to say this isn't going to be easy for our Falcons, but that will make a win all the sweeter if they can manage to leave East Rutherford with one. Let's dive into four matchups that are likely to have an impact on the outcome.
Pass Rush vs. Eli Manning
There isn't a more inconsistent quarterback than Eli Manning. A week ago he accounted for five touchdowns and looked like the second coming of his older brother, but it's worth remembering after two games this season that everyone was questioning whether he could function at a high level in a Ben McAdoo offense. The man flips the switch from Good to Bad Eli so smoothly you hardly notice the transition.
To force the shift, though, the Falcons should apply pressure. At this point, singling out the pass rush as a key matchup has the potential to trigger waves of sadness across the fanbase, but I remain convinced the Falcons are capable of some kind of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Giants lack an elite offensive line and Manning's penchant for tossing ugly interceptions when the heat is on make is critical to try to goose a pass rush.
It's going to take playing Jonathan Massaquoi and Stansly Maponga with greater frequency, it's going to take some creativity from Mike Nolan and perhaps some blitzes originating from the speedy Falcons' secondary, and it's going to take guys finishing out rushes in a way they haven't been able to do thus far. Perhaps that's a tall order, but it may be a necessary one.
Beat-Up Falcons Line vs. Giants Pass Rush
On the flip side of the coin, we have a line down Joe Hawley and Lamar Holmes attempting to keep the likes of Jason Pierre-Paul and Damontre Moore out of the backfield. Fun!
The downgrade from Lamar Holmes to Gabe Carimi probably isn't a serious one, thankfully, though I really thought Holmes was rounding into form. The step down from Hawley to Konz could be more significant, however, and that impacts the middle of the line. Subtract Justin Blalock from the picture and you're looking at a grim week.
The key, as I mentioned in my harebrained ways to fix the Falcons article, will be getting rid of the ball quickly. Ryan needs to be throwing screens and finding the likes of Antone Smith on a consistent basis, trying to get those guys room in the open field and take some heat off of Ryan. It won't be easy, though, even with the Giants possessing something less than an elite pass rush.
Falcons Run Defense vs. Rashad Jennings
While we're on the topic of tall orders, let's talk run defense.
Rashad Jennings and Andre Williams have been rolling over teams all season long, showing impressive power on the ground. The Falcons have shown a disturbing inability to slow down backs as talented as Giovanni Bernard and as plodding and average as Matt Asiata, so I'm certainly not going to sit here and say "hey, we're good."
Stopping Jennings and to a lesser extent Andre Williams is going to mean that everyone on the field needs to step up their play. Yes, Mike Nolan should consider running fewer nickel looks, but a lot of the team's failings in this regard do come down to execution.
Prince Amukamara and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie vs. Julio and Roddy
The Falcons are going to be playing with a depleted offensive line, which will have an impact on the offense. If the Giants' formidable top cornerback duo can take away Julio Jones and Roddy White, we're talking about a potentially ugly situation for Atlanta.
Thankfully, it's difficult to stop both of these receivers even with a truly dominant set of cornerbacks, but this is still the toughest matchup Julio and Roddy have faced thus far in 2014. As I advocated earlier in the week, the team should probably look to get the ball to Julio in particular on a lot of screens and quick crossing routes to try to give him the ball in space against the Giants' secondary. Amukamara and Rodgers-Cromartie are supremely athletic, so Dirk Koetter and company need to bear that in mind.
This is a winnable game, thanks to the Falcons' still potent offense and the Giants' inconsistency. Just keep your expectations modest, I'd say.
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