FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – It was an inglorious performance for one of the better offenses in the NFL last season.
When the New York Giants ended the Falcons’ season in the NFC Wildcard round, the Falcons’ offense was kept off the board as the Giants prevailed 24-2.
The collective memory is that the game was a blowout, but the halftime score was 7-2 and with 18 minutes left in regulation the Falcons remained within one score at 10-2.
So if they could have done more on offense, the complexion of the game might have been different. In some ways, the game was similar to the Falcons’ 30-20 loss to Carolina last week, in which Atlanta failed to score in the first half. On Wednesday, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan talked about how failure to convert on third down in the first half last Sunday not only kept Atlanta scoreless but also left the Falcons’ defense on the field for too long – both of which were key contributing factors in the loss.
The Falcons constantly talk about fixing their mistakes and so if they can fix the mistakes they made last week, they also might be able to fix what they did wrong against the Giants in the playoffs last season. The Giants have won two Super Bowls in the last five seasons with a major strength of their team being its pass rush, a facet at which Carolina also excels.
From last January’s meeting with the Giants, only two Falcons starters on offense have changed but, critically, they have a new offensive coordinator in Dirk Koetter.
Because Koetter kept roughly 85 percent of the Falcons’ playbook, Giants head coach Tom Coughlin said “some similarities” exist between Atlanta’s offense this season and what the Giants have on tape from last year’s playoff meeting.
“We try to go back to our to individual personnel evaluations in how people are being used in the offense and so we maybe start from there,” Coughlin said. “There’s no question that Dirk Koetter’s presence attaches a different significance to it.”
Also, one key player evaluation will be markedly different. Will Svitek started at left tackle last January, but now Sam Baker is back at that spot. (The other new starter is rookie Peter Konz at right guard, a spot manned last season by Joe Hawley, who is currently suspended for violating the league’s policy on performance enhancing substances.)
It’s worth noting that Baker, a first-round pick in 2008, is having arguably his best season as a pro. According to Stats LLC, he has allowed only three sacks in 13 games, which ranks as the second-fewest among the five starters on the offensive line this season (left guard Justin Blalock has allowed the fewest but he does not face the pass-rushing specialists at right defensive ends that Baker does). In 2011, Baker allowed five sacks while starting only six games and in 2010 when the Falcons went 13-3 he allowed 11.5 in 16 games.
Baker underwent back surgery in the middle of last season and did not start for the remainder of the season. This year, he has returned far healthier than he has been in years. Clearly, that has helped him.
In addition, he has benefited from Koetter’s system, which better utilizes screens than former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey’s did. Linemen have said that the screens help to neutralize an opposing team’s pass rush.
In some ways, the Falcons also stand to benefit from playing last week against Carolina. Like the Giants, the Panthers use four defensive ends in certain passing situations.
“They have a very similar style in terms of defense, so for our offense, yes, it will help us,” Falcons head coach Smith said on Monday.
After allowing a season-high seven sacks in the Falcons’ first meeting with Carolina, Atlanta made enough changes – or simply played better – in allowing only two last week against the Panthers, one of the few things they did better in the loss.
“I thought our offensive line did a good enough job,” Ryan said. “We just didn’t play well enough as a team.”
The Giants sacked Ryan twice in the playoff game last season. Under Koetter, the Falcons have transitioned into more of a pass-first offense.
What many will remember from last year’s playoff game was the failure to convert on fourth-and-short situations with the run game. Atlanta went 0-for-3 on fourth down.
The Falcons also ran the ball for only 64 yards on 21 carries, with 13 coming on an end around by Julio Jones. Michael Turner averaged just 2.7 yards per carry (41 yards on 15 carries).
Consequently, the Falcons will have to do better against the Giants’ defensive of line of ends Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul and tackles Linval Joseph and Chris Canty. Two-time Pro-Bowler Osi Umenyiora is a back-up.
“From that ballgame last year, we didn’t convert twice on fourth-and-short and when we were in a fringe area,” Smith said. “I think that kind of swayed the momentum in the football game. This is a team that, defensively, that you have to control their front four.”