For the fifth straight season, the New York Giants find themselves at 0-2. The Giants' defense, which was the team’s pride and joy last year, suddenly can’t rush the passer despite having better talent on the field. The defensive secondary, which before the season looked to be the unquestioned strength of the team, has been giving up significant chunk plays thanks to a sudden aversion about covering the middle of the field.
Head coach Joe Judge, always one to speak positively about the team, insists progress s being made little by little, day by day. The problem is that “progress” has translated into an 0-2 start, putting the Giants in a hole that, while not impossible to overcome, is also not ideal.
This weekend, the Giants will take on an Atlanta Falcons team that is also 0-2, and that is coming off a 48-25 loss to the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Falcons kept it close for three quarters, but in the end, they were undone by two turnovers that led to the Bucs exploding for 20 fourth-quarter points.
The Falcons, who last year were worse than the Giants—they held the third overall pick in the draft to the Giants’ 11th spot—have a new coaching staff this year led by Arthur Smith, formerly the offensive coordinator of the Titans for the 2019-2020 seasons.
Their offensive coordinator is Dave Ragone, their defensive coordinator is Dean Pees, and Marquise Williams is their special teams coordinator.
Pees, like Giants Judge, has ties to Alabama and New England, having served as Bill Belichick’s defensive coordinator from 2006-09, choosing not to renew his contract with New England.
Pees, who came out of retirement to head up the Falcons defense, runs a 3-4 scheme, but that’s a bit misleading as Pees tends to rely heavily on the nickel package--during the 2018 season, Pees, then with the Titans, ran the nickel on 73% of defensive snaps — ninth-most in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders.
Thus far, Pees’ defense has struggled in the points allowed department, giving up 32 points to the Eagles in Week 1 and 34 of the 48 points scored by the Bucs (again, 14 of those points came off two interceptions by defensive back Mike Edwards).
It’s a bend-but-don’t break unit that has broken down these first two weeks and which will be looking to stop its bleeding against a Giants offense that has scored 42 points over the first two weeks of the season.
Ragone is a former NFL quarterback who had NFL stints with the Texans, Bengals, and Rams, the latter two as a practice squad player.
He’s worked his way up the NFL coaching ladder, beginning as the receivers coach for the Titans in 2011 and then holding various roles for other teams, including quarterbacks coach for the Titans and Bears, offensive quality control for Washington, and passing game coordinator of the Bears.
Ragone’s offense only managed six points in its first game vs. the Eagles) but did well with the 25 points against the Bucs, which kept them in the game until the two interceptions mentioned above returns for touchdowns by Edwards broke things wide open for the Bucs. The Falcons don’t employ the shogun as much, using that formation just 47.8% of their snaps thus far this season.
This year, the Falcons decided to stick with long-time veteran quarterback Matt Ryan instead of looking for a potential successor. Despite being on the losing end of the spectrum this week, Ryan's 300 passing yards brings him to 56,231 career passing yards, a new league mark for the most passing yards by a player in his first 14 seasons in NFL history, passing former Saints quarterback Drew Brees (56,033).
Although Ryan had decent numbers in Week 2 against Tampa Bay—35 out of 46, 2 touchdowns, and three interceptions (80.0 rating)—those numbers don’t tell the whole story.
Ryan was under duress on 33.3% of his dropbacks by a relentless Bucs pass rush that blitzed on 29.2% of those pressures and who managed to bat down two of his passes at the line and turned them into interceptions. Those plays aside, Ryan also came a little too close for comfort on four other plays that just barely missed becoming turnovers.
When it was all said and done, the Falcons did all their scoring in the second and third quarters of the game, with the score 28-25 Bucs at the end of the third quarter.
But then the bottom simply dropped out, and Ryan was twice picked off in the fourth quarter, both by Edwards and both being converted into touchdowns as the Falcons couldn’t sustain any drives in the game’s final 15 minutes.
The Falcons’ rushing attack can best be described as underrated. Starter Mike Davis, a fourth-round pick by the 49ers in 2015 who joined Atlanta from Carolina this past off-season, leads the pack with 87 yards on 24 carries.
The 5’9”, 221-pound runner has averaged 3.7 yards per carry over his career. He’s also a solid option out of the backfield, where he has 135 receptions (out of 169 pass targets) for 851 yards.
Eight of Davis’s nine rushing attempts were wide right, where he picked up 39 yards, and the week before, Davis gained 25 of his rushing yards on three carries to the right. Thus far, he hasn’t been quite as effective in between the tackles, rushing three times for 16 yards, so setting the edges against the run will be a key for the Giants this week in keeping Davis contained.
Interestingly, receiver Cordarrelle Patterson has been taking on more and more run-game responsibilities. Patterson’s speed helps on end-arounds and jet sweeps, and he’s currently second on the Falcons, behind Davis in both rushing yards (65) and carries (14).
Patterson has also scored the team’s only rushing touchdown, also coming off the right edge where he finished his day with two carries for 12 yards rushing. Patterson rushed 11 times on seven carries in his team’s Week 2 loss after posting 54 rushing yards on seven carries against the Eagles in Week 1. He also
caught five out of six pass targets against the Bucs for 58 yards, averaging a team-leading 3.63 yards per route run.
The team’s fullback, Keith Smith, is third in rushing yards with 16 on four carries. Smith, who signed with the Cowboys as an undrafted free agent in 2014 out of San Jose State, is a smallish fullback at 6’0, 240-pounds and is not one to push the pile—his career averages yards after contact is 0.93.
The Falcons added former Giants running back Wayne Gallman to their mix, so don’t be surprised to see him get a touch or two against his old teammates.
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In the off-season, the Falcons traded away Julio Jones, their top receiver for years, and have pretty much turned over the reins to Calvin Ridley.
Ridley is the deep threat of the receiver group. His 18 pass targets are tops among the Falcons receivers through two games. He’s racked up 114 yards and one touchdown thus far, averaging 9.5 yards per reception, and has averaged 1.37 yards per route run, again the top mark among the Falcons’ receivers.
Logic might dictate that cornerback James Bradberry might draw the assignment of covering Ridley, but Bradberry has struggled out of the gate. Last week Washington’s Terry McLaurin caught five of seven pass targets against Bradberry for 47 yards and a touchdown.
The week before, Bradberry had no answers against any of the Broncos receivers he faced. Will the third time be a charm if he draws that assignment, or will the Giants look to bracket Ridley to keep him from wrecking the party? Or will the Giants maybe opt to go with Adoree’ Jackson to keep Ridley in check?
Russel Gage is the unofficial No. 2 receiver in the Falcons' arsenal. Gage, who tweaked his ankle Sunday but who returned to action to finish the game after getting his ankle taped up, was primarily played in the slot last year for the Falcons. This year, he sees more of an expanded role that includes snaps both inside and on the perimeter.
The 5’8” and 190-pound Olamide Zaccheaus, a Plainfield, NJ native who played his college ball at Virginia, has some deep speed to his game as well but hasn’t been quite as elusive in terms of the yards after the catch.
He was primarily a slot receiver in college, but he recorded 29 dropped balls in four seasons and came down with 47.8% of his contested catch opportunities. He's continued as a slot receiver in the Falcons offense so far this year.
Before the draft, analysts were calling tight end Kyle Pitts a unicorn, and it’s not hard to see why he got that moniker.
Pitts stands 6’6” and tips the scales at 245 pounds. You want speed? He has it in his game, having clocked in with a 4.44 40-yard dash. He has great body control and balance, and he’s a mismatch in coverage against most smaller safeties and less athletic linebackers.
Simply put, he’s everything the Giants hoped Evan Engram would be—a matchup nightmare in the middle of the field, which puts an undue amount of stress on a defense.
The Giants have struggled with covering the middle of the field, especially against tight ends, who have had their way against New York so far this season. The Giants have allowed opposing tight ends to catch 14 balls for 123 yards and one touchdown, an average of 8.78 yards per reception.
Against the Bucs, Pitts caught all five of his pass targets for 73 yards and is averaging 11.6 yards per catch this season and only 4.0 yards after the catch. The rookie’s production hasn’t quite yet reached his lofty expectations, but it's still very early. And make no mistake--the Giants will need to ensure that this week isn’t Pitts’ breakout game.
"We all know, he was like the most highly touted draft pick I ever heard of coming out in a long time," said Giants safety Logan Ryan of Pitts. "He seems like he’s a 6-5, 245 (pounds), fast, tight end, receiver. I watched the game--he made some athletic catches."
So how do the Giants cover Pitts? The most likely answer is with safety Jabrill Peppers, who has had his share of adventures in man coverage, but who probably has the necessary speed to at least make this a competition.
Hayden Hurst and Lee Smith are the other two tight ends on the Falcons. Hurst is good for a few pass targets per game—thus far, he’s caught five out of five pass targets for 34 yards and 18 yards after the catch. But make no mistake about it: Pitts is the guy from this group the Giants will have to figure out how to contain, given his freakish athleticism and speed.
If you thought the Giants' offensive line was a problem, the Falcons would like to have a word, especially after their Week 2 showing against the Bucs.
Through two weeks, the Falcons’ pass-blocking efficiency rating sits at 80.9, 25th in the league (and just below the Giants, whose PBE rate of 82.5 puts them 22nd in the NFL.
Although the Bucs were credited with one sack and seven hits, among their eight passes defensed were three by Mike Edwards, whose two fourth-quarter interceptions for touchdowns off batted passes were the death blow to the Falcons’ chances of snatching the game from the jaws of defeat.
The starting group—left tackle Jake Matthews, left guard Jalen Mayfield, center Matt Hennessy, right guard Chris Lindstrom, and right tackle Kaleb McGary—gave up 12 pressures on Ryan’s 48 dropbacks despite the quarterback averaging 2.49 seconds to throw.
The Giants pass rush has been slow to get out of the gate so far this season, but with the Falcons having had their struggles along the line, this week would sure be a good one for the unit to have a breakout game since Ryan has only completed 57.7% of his pass attempts when under pressure this season.
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