At points on Sunday, it seemed like every time the Giants offense had the ball, the Falcons were stopping them one way or another. It started on the Giants' first possession of the game, a drive that last all of two plays because Asante Samuel did what he does and picked off Eli Manning. Another interception in the second quarter stopped the Giants, setting up three consecutive series for New York where the Falcons stopped them on downs.
While the turnovers were huge in getting the Giants and their dangerous offense off the field, the stops on downs worked similarly. Not only did they give the Atlanta defense momentum as they continued to shut down the New York offense on the way to a shutout, but they also got the ball back for the Falcons offense, an offense that put up 34 points on Sunday. Head coach Mike Smith said, though not traditional turnovers, they still acted as such and were big in the game of momentum the Falcons continued to win.
"Gigantic," Smith said. "Absolutely gigantic. Those three fourth-down stops are like turnovers. We know that when you make them as a football team it can change the momentum. It multiplies when you stop them on defense. The guys did a very nice job controlling the line of scrimmage on those fourth downs."
Each fourth-down stop preceded a third-down stop for the Falcons defense, the kind of stop they've struggled to get in recent weeks. The first came on a fourth-and-1 run by David Wilson that Sean Weatherspoon stopped for no gain. The second came on a pass play from Manning to Victor Cruz on fourth-and-1 from the Atlanta 11-yard line. The third stop came in the third quarter on a fourth-and-2 from Atlanta's 25. In each situation, the Giants appeared to be within field goal position and their decision to go for it on fourth down struck the Falcons defense.
"I probably would have taken the points, or tried to take the points," linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. "If you're going to challenge us, we've got to step up and that's what we did today."
Instead the Giants' plan backfired. Not only did they not get conversions on third or fourth downs, they didn't get any points. And in the process, they added fuel to a fire that was growing on the defensive side of the ball for Atlanta. More than a few defensive players felt the Giants were underestimating Atlanta's defense.
"I guess the coach has that much confidence in his offense," Dunta Robinson said. "But one thing we know about our defense is we love those challenges. We expected to get off the field all three times they tried it. We got the job done and it's a great feeling over all."
In the last three games the Falcons were allowing opponents to convert combined third and fourth downs at a rate of 53 percent. On Sunday they limited New York to 32 percent, including the three key fourth-down stops.