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Run defense may be key to defeating Falcons

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The Giants' defense this week will face an offense that is different than what it has encountered thus far this season, but that will not alter how it does business.

In their first six games this season, the Giants played the team that finished first in the NFL in rushing last year (Jacksonville) and four teams currently ranked in the top 15 in the league in rushing yardage per game (Dallas, Carolina, Houston and Philadelphia).

On Monday night, they will be in Atlanta to face a Falcons team that is currently 29th in the NFL in generating yardage on the ground (86.0 yards a game). Devonta Freeman, their top rusher in 2017, was placed on injured reserve this week with foot and groin injuries.

With quarterback Matt Ryan playing at a Pro Bowl level and an outstanding trio of receivers in Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and rookie Calvin Ridley, the Falcons have had more success advancing the ball through the air. They rank fifth in the league with an average of 311.2 passing yards a game.

But Giants defensive coordinator James Bettcher said his unit will still focus on stopping the run.

"When we put up weekly goals, it's to stop the run," Bettcher said. "And stopping the run might look like being eight man spacing and hitting your gaps. Stopping the run might be in a coverage where we're split safeties. So each and every week, yes, we have to stop the run. How we stop the run and what the calls are, that's the most important thing."

Bettcher's calls – and his players' execution of them – will be no less vital when the Falcons pass. Atlanta has scored at least 31 points in four of its last five games. Ryan has completed 69.6% of his passes and thrown for 14 touchdowns. The Falcons have committed only three turnovers, two when Ryan threw interceptions. They have converted 49.4% of their third-down opportunities (39 of 79), a figure exceeded by only Kansas City and Cincinnati.

And then there are Jones, Sanu and Ridley, who could well be the NFL's best trio of wideouts.

"That's by far one of the most dynamic combinations of players that you may face in the National Football League," Bettcher said. "Then besides that, you have a quarterback that's one of the top quarterbacks in the league, has great arm strength, decisive, knows where he wants to go with the football, great combination. Going to be an awesome challenge. Our guys are excited about playing them."

The three receivers have combined for 88 catches, 1,359 yards and nine touchdowns. The individual breakdown, however, is a bit unusual:

Table inside Article
Name Receptions Yards Touchdowns
Julio Jones 44 707 0
Calvin Ridley 22 349 7
Mohamed Sanu 22 303 3

Note: Tight end Austin Hooper is second on the team with 30 receptions, including two for touchdowns.

Jones, a five-time Pro Bowler and two-time first-team All-Pro, remains Ryan's favorite receiver, as he has been since Jones joined the team as the sixth overall selection of the draft in 2011.

"He's fast, he's physical, he can run every route, as we all know, great hands, and a quarterback that gives him the ball," cornerback Janoris Jenkins said. "We have to stay on point, lock in and play football."  

What about Jones stood out to Bettcher as he studied the Falcons' offense?

"I'm looking for something that doesn't stand out, to be honest with you," Bettcher said. "Catches balls, great catch radius, speed on the vertical throws, finds a way to catch balls that aren't necessarily within his frame. We played him a couple of times in Arizona (where Bettcher was previously the coordinator) as well. We start watching his tape, and if the ball was in the area code, he was going to have a chance to go up and find a way to make a spectacular catch. That's kind of normal for him."

As he prepares for the Atlanta offense, Bettcher's focus is on getting his defense to play better. The Giants' last three opponents – New Orleans, Carolina and Philadelphia – scored 33, 33 and 34 points. The Eagles converted nine third-down opportunities (four more than any previous Giants opponent) and scored three touchdowns and kicked two field goals on five trips inside the Giants' 20-yard line.

"Two of the things we didn't do well (last week vs. Philadelphia), we didn't execute well on third down, we didn't get off the field on third down, and we didn't win in the red zone," Bettcher said. "Early in the season, those were the things we had done pretty well, and we've got to get back to doing those things well for us to have a chance to play good defense this coming Monday night."

The Giants played last week on Thursday night, worked on Friday, and then scattered for three days. Before they departed and when they returned, Bettcher discussed with his players how they can return to the strong performances they had early in the season.

"We talked to them about some things that each position group, what do we need to do better?" Bettcher said. "Nothing to do with Atlanta. What do we need to do better at each position group? It's like when sometimes you go to the doctor, you go see him, what do they give you? They give you a prescription for what you need. We look at it that way, it's a prescription. Here are the things we need to do better at each position group, and some places, it's individually, then what we focus on in our individual is we focus on those things. To play better defense, that's what it comes down to. To execute better, that's what it comes down to. To call games better, that's what it comes down to, is focusing on the small details, the fundamentals, the techniques it takes to play good defense.

"That's not coach talk, that's what we're talking about with our guys. That's what we're showing them on tape, things that we can improve on at each level – first level, second level, third level of the defense. I love that our guys are all-in on that. I love that our guys know that the game is won by executing and playing good fundamentally and just playing hard, and if we do those three things, we'll be alright. We'll make the plays that are necessary to win the game and to finish games. I do love that about this group."

Bettcher will love it even more if the players execute play as well Monday night as he believes they can.

*Rookie wide receiver Jawill Davis has been declared out of the Monday night game because he is the NFL concussion protocol. That leaves the Giants with just three available wide receivers on their active roster – Odell Beckham, Jr., Sterling Shepard and Bennie Fowler, who was signed this week. Coach Pat Shurmur said the team could sign a wideout from the practice squad.

Wide Russell Shepard (neck) and guard Patrick Omameh (knee) are questionable. Omameh did not practice today.

*Offensive line coach Hal Hunter on tackle Ereck Flowers, who was released on Oct. 9 and now plays for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

"Ereck came in and we put him right through with the first group because we wanted him to work with the first group," Hunter said. "He had a great attitude when he came in and he worked hard and pressed to it. The big thing is you don't really know until you get into the heat of the battle. You're out there running around in sweats during the spring. Then when you get in and actually start to get into preseason games and real games, that's when the rubber meets the road and you're either productive or you're not productive.

"I would say he put his best foot forward and gave us his best effort, and it wasn't working the way we needed it to work, so we felt like we owed Chad Wheeler an opportunity to get out there and show what he could do. When he got out there he was more productive and (that's) kind of the name of the game, right? A lot of times you don't really know until you get through the preseason into the real season; the preseason games, sometimes you play the first three plays, 12 plays, 15 plays and maybe 20 plays. Then when you get into a real game when you got to play 60-70 snaps, that's when you're going to find out. So he gave it his best go, wish him the best and then we just had to move in a different direction."

View the projected starters for Monday's game against the Falcons.