Where: MetLife Stadium -- East Rutherford, New Jersey
When: Sunday, January 8, 1:00 p.m. ET
Since they won Super Bowl XLII in a huge upset over the formerly undefeated New England Patriots at the end of the 2007 season, the primary story of the New York Giants has been of their defensive line. It could be argued that defensive lineman Justin Tuck deserved the MVP award in that game more than quarterback Eli Manning, and as much as Manning has improved in the years since, the Giants' defensive line is still the beating heart of this organization. Tuck is still there, wreaking havoc from different slots along the line, and there's a new weapon now — the excellent end Jason Pierre-Paul. You will see Tuck and Pierre-Paul stunt and line up all over the place, and that will be a big problem for Atlanta's offensive line.
"When you get to third down you've played a lot of plays," Giants offensive lineman Chris Snee said of that multifaceted approach. "And then [reserve defensive end Dave] Tollefson comes off the bench, Tuck slides inside, Pierre-Paul slides inside. I mean, that's a lot of speed for an inside guy to deal with."
Now, Atlanta's defensive line isn't talked about nearly as much, but it's important to observe that according to Football Outsiders' data, the Falcons amassed just as many quarterback hits in 2011 with 48. It's just that the Giants got home a lot more often than Atlanta did (48 sacks to 33). Atlanta's defense runs more zone blitzes and spacing concepts to New York's pressure packages. And against the run … well, fuggetaboudit. The Falcons are much better against the run, which plays well into their hands, because New York's run game has fallen apart this year.
The 2011 Falcons ranked third in Football Outsiders' Defensive Adjusted Line Yards metric, which assigns responsibility to run plays based on total yardage. The Falcons' front four is much better at stopping the run than its back seven — Atlanta averaged 3.72 DALY per carry, and 4.10 running back yards per carry. If Ahmad Bradshaw can get past the underrated Jonathan Babineaux and Corey Peters, he's got a better shot downfield. Peters, who we've talked about in multiple Greg Cosell podcasts this season, is especially under the radar — among defensive tackles, he was the only player to have a higher overall Stop Rate than Cincinnati's Geno Atkins, another player worthy of more recognition.
On offense, we all know about Eli's "chutchiness" in the fourth quarter — his 15 touchdown passes in the final 15 minutes of every 2011 game for the Giants set an NFL record. Matt Ryan? Not so much — he had just six touchdown passes in the fourth quarter. However, Ryan does have one key advantage in that he's been far more effective in the second half of the 2011 season, just as the Giants' pass defense has started to fall apart. Atlanta's offensive passing DVOA jumped from 14th in the NFL to sixth in weeks 10-17, and the New York pass defense DVOA plummeted from 12th to 26th in that same timeframe.
From a penalty perspective, these teams are very evenly matched — the Falcons had 111 penalties, and the Giants had 110. Each team had 23 offensive holding calls as the leading penalty, and 14 in the first half of the season. Atlanta's offensive line obviously faces the tougher challenge here — but that line did rank seventh in FO's Offensive Adjusted Sack Rate metric (which tabulates sacks plus intentional grounding penalties per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent).
According to ESPN's Stats and Info, continuity is the key for Atlanta's line — when starters Will Svitek, Justin Blalock, Todd McClure, Joe Hawley, and Tyson Clabo all played together (which happened in 591 of the Falcons' 1,103 offensive snaps in 2011), Atlanta allowed just six sacks. Any leak in that lineup, and things got bad — 20 sacks allowed in the 512 remaining snaps. The Giants get a lot of pressure with just four pass rushers (34 sacks), but they should consider bringing more blitzes — Stats and Info also reports that in his last seven games, Ryan has thrown 12 touchdowns and no picks against four or fewer pass rushers.
One more interesting note that FO's Aaron Schatz pointed out — this year, the Falcons rank The Falcons ranked 28th against the opponent's No. 1 receiver, 12th against the No. 2 receiver, and second in the league against "other receivers." They also ranked first in the league against tight ends and seventh against running backs. But opponents only threw to their No. 1 receiver on 20 percent of passes against Atlanta, the lowest figure in the league. They threw to their tight ends on 26 percent of passes, the highest in the league, though that was Atlanta's biggest strength.
Of course, that might not matter for the Giants — it could easily be argued that they have two legit #1 receivers in Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, and there's no lead tight end to speak of, though Jake Ballard has been very effective at times. Eli Manning actually had one of the higher passer ratings with four or more wide/slot receivers in the formation (91.9).
One thing that does NOT work in the Falcons' favor is the inactive status of cornerback Brent Grimes for this game -- he is by far the team's best pass defender. Per FO's stats, Grimes allowed 6.0 yards per pass with a 66 percent Success Rate through the 2011 season, while battery-mate Dunta Robinson allowed 9.1 yards per pass with a 53 percent Success Rate.
Hidden Stat Battle: Matt Ryan vs. public perception. As it has been with most "dome quarterbacks," Ryan has had to overcome the notion that he's some short of hothouse flower who can't thrive in less controlled environs. If you believe that about Ryan, you do so at your own peril. In 2011, Ryan was actually better outdoors — and there's enough of a sample size to make that stick. Ryan was 226 of 368 (61.4%) for 2,642 yards (7.18 YPA), 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions indoors, and 121 of 198 (61.1%) for 1,535 yards (7.75 YPA), nine touchdowns and just three interceptions. You want QB rating? Try 94.2 outdoors and 91.1 indoors.
So, if you hear any talking heads espouse the theory that Matt Ryan will dry up and blow away outside of the Georgia Dome, you'll know you're listening to someone who hasn't done their homework.