ATLANTA – The first half of the 2018 season hasn't gone the way the Falcons expected, defensively, and injuries have certainly played a major role in that. But in their win over the Giants on Monday night, the Falcons' defense played their best game at an important time.
Atlanta (3-4) held the Giants to 20 points in its victory, with eight of those points coming with less than 10 seconds left in the game. It was the first time the Falcons held an opponent to under 24 points since Week 1.
"I thought they kept us in it," Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. "They kind of kept us in the driver's seat the entire night with their play. Their aggressiveness, I thought they tackled really well. They were physical, got after the passer. I'm proud of them. They've been working really hard and they played really well tonight."
The Giants did manage several chunk plays against the Falcons on Monday night, hitting five pass plays of 25 yards or more, but Atlanta made enough plays when it mattered most.
Crucially, the Falcons played well in the red zone. The Giants (1-6) scored a touchdown on just two of their five trips to the red zone, and the Falcons forced a turnover on downs on the first series of the second half after New York had two chances to score from the 1-yard line.
"We've just put an emphasis on the red zone since Week 1," rookie linebacker Foye Oluokun said. "We saw stuff that needed to get fixed down there, so every practice, every time we get to red-zone and goal-line stuff, we're just really harping on that and trying to get better at that. Because that gets points off the board for them, getting them to field goals or fourth-down, goal-line stands. If they don't score, they don't win. That's a big part of our game."
Atlanta's pass rush also came alive on Monday night. The Falcons entered the game with 10 sacks on the season, but they sacked Eli Manning four times in the win. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, who missed the last two games due to injury, led the way with two sacks, while Takk McKinley and Jack Crawford each had a sack as well.
"I feel like we came out with the mentality to go attack and guys did all the way across the board," Jarrett said. "Even guys who didn't get it was a big part of the play when the play was made. In the second half, the ball was coming out just a little bit faster. We were still getting there, getting pressure. We got pressure all game. Definitely knew against Eli, you've got to get some good hits on him."
Odell Beckham Jr. led the way for the Giants, gaining 142 yards on seven catches, while fellow receiver Sterling Shepard had 103 yards on three catches. Aside from Beckham Jr. and Shepard, however, the Falcons did well to bottle up New York's other weapons, most notably, rookie running back Saquon Barkley.
One week after rushing for 130 yards and a touchdown against the Eagles, Barkley was held to just 43 yards on 14 carries – his second-lowest rushing yardage total this season. Heading into the game, he was a point of emphasis for the defense.
"He's a back that you've got to give him his due respect," Jarrett said. "I ain't really never seen nothing like that dude. Watching him on tape, he's just somebody that can really do it all – big, fast. So you've got to pay him his respects. We did a good job today getting a lot of hats to the ball."
The Falcons have now won two straight games heading into their bye week, and the defense is fresh off its best performance since Week 1. There's more good news on the horizon as Pro-Bowl linebacker Deion Jones is eligible to come off of IR as early as the Falcons' game against the Cowboys on Nov. 18.
Until then, this defense, and this team, will focus on taking things one step at a time and keeping this momentum moving in a positive direction.
"We're a team that knows everything that we want is still ahead of us," Jarrett said. "We're going to push it in that way. Not letting one win stay on our mind for too long, not letting a loss stay on our mind. We're going to take this win and enjoy it, but we've got to put it to bed and go back to work. We've got a long way to go; we're a group of tough guys, we aren't ever giving up."