Falcons prepare for Giants’ vaunted pass rush

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – It’s a pretty simple proposition: When the Falcons protect quarterback Matt Ryan and he throws fewer interceptions, Atlanta tends to win.

When the Falcons go up against the New York Giants on Sunday in the first round of the NFC playoffs, the Falcons will face one of the best pass-rushing teams in the NFL.

The Giants are tied for third in the NFL in sacks this season with 48.0, two behind the league’s co-leaders. The Giants have three defensive linemen that Falcons head coach Mike Smith refers to as potential “game-wreckers”: Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora.

Pierre-Paul’s 16.5 sacks ranked fourth in the NFL while both Tuck and Umenyiora were affected by injuries this season. Tuck posted five sacks in 12 games and Umenyiora, nonetheless, totaled nine sacks in nine games.

The Giants’ ability to rush the passer has been a trademark for years. They famously ruined New England’s bid for an unbeaten season with a 17-14 victory in Super Bowl XLII against one of the best passing offenses largely because of their ability to rush the passer. The Giants’ defensive coordinator then was Steve Spagnuolo. When Spagnuolo left to become the Rams’ head coach after the 2009 season, the Giants hired Perry Fewell, who had served as Buffalo’s defensive coordinator and then interim coach that season.

“This is a group that can put a lot of pressure on the quarterback, not only with their front four, but they have a very complex blitz package that coach Fewell likes to implement,” Smith said.

In their six losses, the Falcons have allowed 1.8 sacks per game and 1.2 interceptions per game. In their 10 wins, they have allowed 1.5 sacks per game and 0.5 interceptions per game.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has thrown interceptions in only one of the team’s final seven games (the 17-10 loss at Houston in which he threw two). The Falcons went 5-2 in those last seven games and 3-1 in their last four, as Ryan did not throw any interceptions.

Interceptions are not always a result of pressure on the quarterback. One of those interceptions against Houston came when a receiver ran the wrong route.

Nonetheless, Smith said the biggest factor in the team’s two playoff appearances in his first three seasons — both defeats in the Falcons’ first game — was turnovers.

“There was a common theme in terms of that you can’t turn the football over,” Smith said. “That was the most pressing thing and both of them happened right, if you remember correctly, they both happened, one right before halftime last season (against Green Bay, an interception returned for a touchdown) and Arizona (in January 2009), I think was the first or second play of the second half. We came out and turned the ball over and it was returned for a touchdown, as well.

“It’s no different than regular season football, but we’ve got to make sure that we have ball security. We cannot turn the football over in the postseason. It’s imperative.”

In terms of understanding the Giants’ scheme, the Falcons have a fair amount of familiarity with the Giants’ defense. Smith said it is fairly similar to what Buffalo ran when the Falcons played the Bills at the end of the 2009 season.

In addition, Fewell had served on the outgoing staff with Jacksonville as secondary coach under then-Jaguars head coach Tom Coughlin, now the Giants’ head man, when Smith arrived there as defensive coordinator under Jack Del Rio in 2003.

“There are some similarities,” Smith said of the Giants’ defense in comparison to Buffalo’s, then added, ” . . . We came into Jacksonville after it, so when we were doing our due diligence with regards to the personnel, we had an opportunity to see, we watched their whole season, so you got an opportunity to look at their defense. I think he does a very good job in looking at matchups, not only out on the edges with the secondary, but he does a good job with the matchups with his pass rushers.

“I think he does a very good job moving the guys around and you’ll see they have a very good rotation, and they’ll put guys at different spots. The Pro-Bowl defensive end, Pierre-Paul, you’ll see him line up at defensive end, you’ll see him line up at defensive tackle, and you’ll see him line up in a two-point stance as a linebacker in his rushes as well. He’s done a very good job in terms of creating the matchups and creating identification issues.”

Issues the Falcons will have to master.

NOTES: Smith said that starting linebacker Stephen Nicholas (toe) was likely doubtful for the game. He said that Nicholas’ backup Spencer Adkins, who started his first career game on Sunday, played about 25 snaps in the season finale against Tampa Bay. Adkins played only in what Smith called the first- and second-down base defense. He did not play in nickel (five-defensive back) situations. Smith said he thought Adkins did a “nice job.” Adkins had one solo tackle and two assists. Adkins was playing in place of veteran Mike Peterson, who was put on season-ending injured reserve on Dec. 27 with an arm injury.