“It’s basically a moment when one team is trying to prove it’s stronger than the other team,” Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora said. “And the defense is very aware of that challenge. Who’s stronger? It can be a very pivotal moment.”
Even in 21st-century football, with spread offenses and passes lofted in the air on the majority of plays, games can still be determined by the ability to gain a yard, or less, and often in the most direct way: a quarterback sneak over the back of the center.
The Giants’ defense dominated the Atlanta Falcons in almost every facet during a 24-2 playoff-game drubbing Sunday, but there were two plays deep in Giants territory that could have provided Atlanta with the momentum needed to quell a boisterous home Giants crowd while also allowing the Falcons to exert control, especially in the most elemental way.
When Atlanta failed on each of those fourth-and-1 attempts, the Giants were emboldened. The Falcons’ offense remained pointless.
“You could look in their eyes after that and see they were stunned and unsure,” Umenyiora said. “Usually that means they’re going downhill. Those are like two turnovers — we took the ball from them.”
There was exaltation on the Giants’ sideline after each stop, with quarterback Eli Manning recalling past playoff moments when it was the Giants who failed in such situations.
“When you don’t make it on fourth down, it’s tough to overcome,” Manning said. “And conversely, when your defense stops them, it’s a huge momentum swing.”
As crucial as the fourth-down plays might have been psychologically, there was no immediate benefit for the Giants after the first stop of Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan at the Giants’ 24-yard line to start the second quarter. Three plays later, Manning was called for intentionally grounding in the end zone, which resulted in a safety and a 2-0 Falcons lead.
But after the Giants’ defense, which held Atlanta to 247 yards on 64 offensive plays (3.9 yards per play), forced a Falcons punt later in the half, Manning led the Giants on a 13-play touchdown drive. The Giants took command of the game, churning up yards and winning the battle for field position.
By the third quarter, the Giants had extended their lead to 10-2, but Atlanta’s short passing game took the Falcons to the Giants’ 21 and another fourth-and-1.
Atlanta Coach Mike Smith defended his decision to go for it twice on fourth down instead of accepting the potential field goals by saying, “We ought to be able to move the ball less than a half-yard on a quarterback sneak.”
But in each case the Giants were waiting — and knew what was coming. Several Giants defensive linemen said their coaches had shown them video of Falcons short-yardage plays from this season. According to the players, Ryan usually kept the ball rather than hand it to a back. And the Falcons had occasionally tried multiple shifts and delaying tactics before the snap.
On the first fourth-down play, Ryan made hand motions and various signals as if preparing for a more elaborate play, or perhaps to draw the Giants offside.
“The coaches warned us about that,” defensive end said. “But once he got back under the center and the clock was down to three or four seconds, we knew it was go time and he was keeping it.”
Three plays after the second defensive stand, Manning connected with Hakeem Nicks over the middle, and Nicks ran away from the Atlanta secondary for a 72-yard touchdown and a 17-2 Giants lead.
The basic, head-to-head nature of the plays was the focus in both locker rooms after the game — the Giants also stopped Atlanta on a third-and-1 — but they were just highlights in a thorough and systematic rout spearheaded by the Giants’ defense.
The Falcons converted just 4 of 14 third-down plays and ran for only 64 yards, and their featured running back, Michael Turner, averaged 2.7 yards on 15 carries. Tight end Tony Gonzalez, whom many considered a key to the game, caught four passes but was not a significant factor. Ryan’s longest pass play was 21 yards.
And the Falcons could not advance the ball less than a yard twice, even when they were — in the words of — “in the shadow of our own goal posts.”
Tuck, the Giants’ defensive captain, saw the symbolism in both plays.
“Short yardage is sometimes all about not being pushed around — not back, not sideways — you just stand your ground,” he said. “Basic football.”