Originally posted on Fox Sports South  |  Last updated 1/3/12
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. The Atlanta Falcons face a diverse trio of running backs when they visit the New York Giants on Sunday in their first-round playoff game, but perhaps their bigger challenge will be getting their 20th ranked pass defense to stop Pro-Bowl quarterback Eli Manning. Manning, 31, who has a Super Bowl under his belt, is arguably having the best year of his career, having thrown for a career-best 4,933 yards 900 more than any of his other seasons to go with 29 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. Manning posted a slightly higher quarterback rating in 2009 than he did this season (93.1 to 92.9), but that season he fumbled 13 times, losing eight of them. This season, Manning has greatly cut down on his turnovers he has eight fumbles, and four lost giving him 20 total on the season compared to 30 last season and 22 in 2009. Falcons defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder said on Tuesday that Manning has great vision. Hes got great (throwing) motion and is always throwing the ball very well, all the way back to college, VanGorder said. He anticipates well and hes very intelligent. One of the big question marks for the Falcons as they prepare is the health of two defensive starters, strong side linebacker Stephen Nicholas (toe) and left cornerback Brent Grimes, a Pro-Bowler last season. Head coach Mike Smith said on Monday that he thought Nicholas was doubtful for the game. Nicholas replacement is third-year player Spencer Adkins, who earned his first NFL start on Sunday and played about 25 snaps with one solo tackle and two assists. Of Adkins, VanGorder said, Yeah, hell be ready and only that he did a good job in the 45-24 win over Tampa Bay. Grimes injury could cause concern. Following Nov. 27s game against Minnesota, he underwent a procedure on his knee and was inactive for the next three games. He returned to play on Dec. 26 against New Orleans, but was inactive again in the season finale. Smith would only say that it was in the best interest of the team to hold Grimes out of the Tampa Bay game. More will be learned on Grimes on Wednesday when the Falcons practice for the first time this week and have to issue an injury report. Well play without him if he cant go like weve been doing and thats the way it is, VanGorder said. Well see during the week. As VanGorder noted, Manning likely is intelligent enough to go after Grimes replacement, second-year player Dominique Franks. New Orleans and Drew Brees did that at times and Franks did not record a tackle in that game, though he did have an interception. Among Mannings top weapons is wide receiver Victor Cruz, who had a break-out year to finish third in the NFL in receiving yards. Former North Carolina Tar Heel Hakeem Nicks, New Yorks No. 2 receiver, also poses a threat. Obviously, theyre explosive receivers, VanGorder said. Theyre both a handful. Between the good, solid running game and receiving corps they have, it makes for a very tough offense to defend. Those two guys are capable of explosive plays at any time. The Falcons, at times and through the last few seasons, have struggled in giving up the explosive play. The Falcons strength on defense this season has been against run, though some cynics say they finished sixth in run defense in the NFL because it is easier to attack them from the air. On paper, the run game would seem to favor the Falcons in this match-up, as the Giants ranked 32 of 32 teams in rushing yards a facet of the game that has been their staple in the past. Smith referred to the Giants backfield as a three-headed monster. Those players are speedster Ahmad Bradshaw, the big, physical Brandon Jacobs and former Georgia player D.J. Ware. Over the last four games, as the Giants went 3-1, that trio ran for 112, 91, 106 and 92 yards. Theyre playing much better football here at the end of the season, Smith said. VanGorder noted that Bradshaw is a good receiver and athlete while the defense needs to prevent the 264-pound Jacobs from getting into the secondary where hes hard to tackle. Theyve been running the ball a lot better lately, VanGorder said. Thats what were concentrating on, whats been taking place here recently, so theyre a great combination together. As to what improvements the Giants have made in the last four games, VanGorder said, I dont know. I dont know how to answer that. The backs are running well and the offensive lines doing a good job, but take them from the very beginning of the year, I dont have an answer for that. Hell need an answer for all of it come Sunday.
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