Playbook: First down D key for Giants vs. Falcons

After winning the NFC East on Sunday, the New York Giants deserve congratulations.

They are division winners, a playoff host and one of 12 contenders for the Lombardi Trophy. But to move forward in these playoffs, the Giants have to step up their game. Against Matt Ryan, Michael Turner and the Atlanta Falcons (10-6), the Giants defense will most certainly have to do better – and it all starts on first down versus the run.

Heading into the first round, the Giants are the league’s fifth-worst defense versus the run on first down, giving up an average of 4.96 yards per carry. And when we study the Falcons, we see a group that is extremely committed to the run on first down (handing off 54.31 percent of the time).

While the Falcons are not the most efficient team running on first down – 35.32 percent of those run plays go for more than four yards – a reduced burden going into second-down would allow the Falcons to balance an offense that was forced to pass on 61 percent of their second downs during the regular season.

If the Giants allow yards on first down, encouraging the Falcons to run again on second down, Atlanta has proven on tape to find ways to be successful at it. More specifically, we saw on tape that Atlanta is efficient at running to the strong side of their formation on second down, averaging 4.74 yards per carry on those runs.

In turn, holding up versus the run will be a huge challenge for the Giants defensive line, including ends Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul, who want to get upfield and rush the passer. They must set the edge for their linebackers to fill, because success for the Falcons run game is one domino the Giants can’t let fall.

When the Falcons are efficient running the ball, their play-action pass game – with Tony Gonzalez and Harry Douglas playing major roles over the middle – has a chance to be very efficient. Ryan has 84.5 percent efficiency (gaining more than four yards) throwing out of play action on first and second down, gaining first downs on early downs or putting the offense in shorter third down situations.

Sending a safety into the box to combat the Falcons run game, however, only opens up the field for Ryan. From what we have seen on tape, Ryan can fit the ball down the field vertically to the boundary side (which means the tight sideline, closest to the ball). On throws down the boundary, to deep threats Roddy White and Julio Jones, the Falcons average 9.1 yards per catch (as opposed to 7.93 yards per catch to the wider, field side).

Sure, the Giants bring a lot to the table to challenge the Falcons offensively, but their success in these playoffs will first hinge on improving defensively on first down.

“Playbook” — the ultimate football Xs and Os show – airs Friday at 8 p.m. ET (AFC) and 9 p.m. ET (NFC) on NFL Network. Check the NFL Network broadcast schedule for further details. Follow “Playbook” on Twitter @NFLN_Playbook.

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