What happens when a stoppable force meets a moveable object? The answer might come when the Falcons travel to MetLife Stadium to play the New York Giants. Both teams are looking to rebound from a disastrous start to the 2021 NFL season. The Giants have made Teddy Bridgewater and Taylor Heinicke look like Pro Bowlers, while Atlanta has set the franchise record for points allowed over the first two weeks of a season. Neither offense is performing well, though the Giants have shown a little more life comparatively. It’s been a bad start for both teams, but this is the week to get right.
The question is, which team will manage to put it together? This game presents a curious matchup because both teams are weak in similar areas. When faced with a choice between an anemic pass rush and a pushover offensive line, to whom do you give the edge? Which porous secondary will find some answers facing off against lackluster passing games? Who wants to “get right”, and who will spawn week three draft takes from their fan base?
Who Can Get Right in Pass Protection?
Neither the Giants nor the Falcons are coming into this game feeling good about either unit. In terms of pass protection, both teams are struggling mightily along the interior. Falcons guard Jalen Mayfield posted the lowest pass-blocking grade PFF has ever handed out in week one, while New York’s Billy Price has managed to one-up Mayfield by carrying a single-digit pass-blocking grade for the season so far.
Does it get any better at tackle? Not really. The Giants hoped the respectable performance from Andrew Thomas in week one signaled a turning point for the former top-five pick, but he followed it up with a rough outing against Washington in week two. Nate Solder has churned out two performances that approach league average, but the veteran tackle hasn’t had a “good” game since 2019. The Falcons can claim to have the best tackle of the two teams in Jake Matthews, but the ever-present liability Kaleb McGary presents across from him erases any edge that would give them.
Advantage: No one. Both teams are struggling to piece together an NFL-caliber offensive line. This comparison is a race to the bottom.
Can the Falcons Find a Pass Rush?
How about the other side of the ball? Can either team seize an advantage and create consistent pressure on the opposing quarterbacks? Despite Dean Pees’ history of manufacturing pressure via the blitz, he hasn’t replicated that success thus far in Atlanta. Though the Falcons did manage to bring down Tom Brady three times last week, they only generated ten total QB pressures per PFF’s charting. The Falcons had an identical performance in week one, leaving them near the bottom of the NFL in total QB pressures.
This game could be an opportunity for the Falcons defense to find its footing. The Giants have had severe communication issues in setting their protections, and Dean Pees will try to exploit that with his play calling. I wouldn’t expect the Falcons to win consistently along the edge, but between Grady Jarrett and Pees’ love for A-gap blitzing, the Falcons will have an advantage inside. Unfortunately, the same is true for the Giants.
Despite only having three sacks, PFF ranks New York in the top half of the NFL in QB pressures. Standout defensive tackle Leonard Williams leads the way with eight pressures, and the entire defensive interior accounts for 42% of the team’s 41 total QB pressures. Rookie edge rusher Azeez Ojulari has had a strong start with two sacks and six total pressures. This Giants front is still a far cry from the dominant units that led the Super Bowl a decade ago. Still, they are competent enough to cause significant problems for Atlanta, especially with their weaknesses in the interior. Giants fans have eagerly awaited a breakout game for Dexter Lawrence, and this may be when they get their wish.
Advantage: Giants. Grady Jarrett is probably this game’s best pass rusher, but the Giants have more talent across the board. Still, expect Atlanta to make their presence felt.
Who Can Get Right on Offense?
The Giants spent their offseason loading up on offense to prevent any excuses for Daniel Jones’ underwhelming showing at quarterback. It’s worked in a way, though probably not how the team envisioned. Kenny Golladay hasn’t begun to earn the $72 million contract he signed in the offseason. First-round pick Kadarius Toney has less receiving yardage than Tamorion Terry, and the only thing Terry has caught this year is a murder charge. Saquon Barkley hasn’t returned to form after missing 2020 with a knee injury. Despite this, Jones has stacked together two solid performances in 2021. He is currently the teams leading rusher, which isn’t great, and he played a turnover-free game against Washington. It’s a low bar to clear, but he’s trending in the right direction.
The biggest question for New York is whether or not Barkley can give them anything this week. It’s a favorable matchup for the Giants. Atlanta has allowed more yards before contact than any other team in the NFL and has a bottom five run defense DVOA per Football Outsiders. Since his knee injury, Barkley hasn’t looked like himself, but Atlanta is that “get right” team. If the Giants can finally get their run game going this week, it will create a clear advantage for them.
Receivers May Rule the Day
This advantage is amplified by the sizeable advantage the Giants’ receivers have over the Falcons secondary. With AJ Terrell (concussion) unlikely to play, the Falcons look to start TJ Green at corner this week. Green, a recent convert from safety, is a physical player but will be overmatched by any of the three top receivers for the Giants. It is impossible to find a single matchup that looks favorable for Atlanta’s secondary. If Evan Engram can make his 2021 debut, the situation goes from bad to worse. Atlanta’s pass coverage wasn’t good with Terrell. Absent their best player, this has the makings of a disastrous outing unless Atlanta can create consistent pressure.
Can the Falcons Do it for Four Quarters?
Atlanta’s outlook isn’t quite as rosy, but it too is trending in the right direction. After starting with an abysmal showing against Philadelphia, the Falcons seemed to regain their composure against Tampa in week two. Sure, the game ended with two ugly pick-sixes, but the offense looked good briefly in the second half last week. It’s something to build on.
Mirroring the situation in New York, Atlanta will look to exploit the Giants on the ground. The Giants have the third-worst rush defense DVOA and have been particularly susceptible to outside runs over the last two weeks. This plays into Atlanta’s strengths, as they are much better rushing off the tackles than between them. While I have doubts that the Falcons line will make strides in pass protection, there is potential for them to shift the balance of the game on the ground.
You Can’t Get Sacked if You Run the Ball
An effective run game can work wonders to mitigate lousy pass protection, which may open the door for Matt Ryan to turn his season around. Despite everyone’s high hopes, Ryan has been a bottom-five quarterback in essentially every metric so far. His intended air yards per completion and attempt are half of his career average. He’s looked hesitant behind a terrible line and has made multiple uncharacteristic mistakes over the last two games. His teammates haven’t done him any favors, but Matt needs to step it up.
Unfortunately, this is probably the best secondary the Falcons have faced so far. The Eagles and Bucs suffered multiple injuries that thinned them out. The Giants secondary has underperformed thus far, but on paper, it’s a talented group. With Russell Gage down with an ankle injury, the Falcons aren’t going to have any apparent mismatches outside. Calvin Ridley is formidable, but with no other threats at receiver, the Giants can bracket him without worrying about their other cornerbacks.
Breakout for Pitts?
The key to shaking that up is Kyle Pitts. The rookie hasn’t gotten off to a hot start, but this is a very favorable matchup for him this week. The Giants don’t have any linebackers that have a prayer against him in coverage. There isn’t an obvious choice at safety either, though I suspect Jabril Peppers will ultimately be the one to shoulder the responsibility. If this line can afford Ryan enough time to get the ball downfield, Pitts will have opportunities for big plays. It’s just a matter of dialing it up and executing.
Advantage: Giants, by a slim margin
Although Atlanta has the single best mismatch advantage with Kyle Pitts, the Giants have more options overall. New York has a better set of skill players, a better secondary, and a quarterback that can potentially mask offensive line deficiencies. Jones’s tendency to turn the ball over is a wildcard here, but New York should have no issue getting up and down the field if he can protect the ball.
Can the Falcons Get Right?
Though it breaks my little red and black heart, I find it hard to muster the confidence to predict a Falcons victory. As hard as it may be to believe, the Giants are better at almost every position group. I expect that to become more evident as the game wears on Sunday. There is always a path to victory for the Falcons, though. If I can envision a path to victory against the Bucs, a winless Giants team doesn’t present a hopeless situation. Consistent pressure plus an effective run game could be enough to steal a win, but the margin for error will be slim. In the end, I think we see improvement from the team, but not enough to spoil Eli Manning day at MetLife.