Giant Tidbits: How the Zone Blitz Brought Down Big Blue


The New York Giants suffered another stinging defeat on Monday night, this time at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons and their struggling defense. Coming into Week 7, the Falcons’ defense was ranked 30th in total yards and 31st in DVOA (22.5%) at Football Outsiders. Their struggles are partially attributed to key injuries to players like as LB Dion Jones and safety Keanu Neal. Eli Manning and the Giants came in looking to strike at this weakness.


Instead, the Giants’ offense struggled mightily for a plethora of reasons. Atlanta runs primarily single-high safety zone structures that head coach Dan Quinn helped make famous in Seattle. They run a bit more man coverage than some realize, but the foundation of their defense is Cover 3 and relying on athleticism and speed to swarm opponents. One aspect that stood out somewhat surprisingly, however, was the success of the Falcons’ zone blitz packages, particularly a strongside nickelback blitz to the Giants’ 3×1 wide receiver sets.


Let’s look at the first example, a 3rd-and-10 at 6:37 in the second quarter to clarify this very specific blitz look. The Giants come out in a 3×1 bunch receiver set to the right. As usual in head coach Pat Shurmur’s drop back passing playbook, either side of the formation held certain man- and zone-beater combinations. The Falcons will be blitzing their defensive back nearest to this set. Please see below:

On this play, the Falcons defend the 3×1 set in coverage with four pattern-match defenders on one side and man to the boundary side. It seems as if Manning recognizes the blitzing defensive back but is preoccupied with the rush, or is uncomfortable with the coverage to that side. This causes him to miss the streaking Odell Beckham (believe blown assignment by the defense) and is sacked by Falcons DE Takkarist McKinley. McKinley had quite the first half with his speed rush against Giants’ left tackle, Nate Solder. This example is a microcosm of the Giants’ issues on the offensive side of the ball: workable play-calling against fallible opponents who attack the weaknesses of the offense in both protection and under center. These attacks negate much of the upside of either position group for Big Blue.


The very next series on a 2nd-and-8, Manning and the Giants again see the nickelback blitz against their 3×1 sets. This time, the Falcons clean up the coverage, starting off by spinning their safety down from a two-high structure at the snap. Please see the below play:

Some may initially cry out “Check Down!”, but this is a Scat Concept, a very basic level two-man route concept that works best against single-high structures. The spin of the safety down to the flat created that very structure (3×3 zone with one middle of field safety), so Manning made the correct half-field read there and also within the concept itself. The throw was low and Barkley could not come up with the catch. This is a great example of a high percentage throw that many would consider boring, but the goal being to generate three to five easy yards, and if the timing/placement is cleaned up, maybe more. All in all, a good choice even for the analytics crowd on 2nd down.


Fast forward to the 3rd quarter, on the 2nd play of the Giants’ opening possession of the half, and yes, again they face a nickel blitz from the right side against a 3×1 set. I should mention at this point the player they are sending is Brian Poole, a very underrated slot defender. Please see his below play strength against RB Saquon Barkley:

The Falcons’ wrinkle this time is a Firezone blitz, where an opposite side defender to the blitzer backs off from the line of scrimmage into coverage. Additionally, the Giants’ protection scheme calls for Saquon Barkley to pick up the blitzing Poole. This occurs on Manning’s front side as his eyes downfield, and the question arises if pocket presence could have simply sidestepped to the left, avoiding the rush. One has to remember, the QB knows the protection called, and is often an integral partner in choosing it. The Falcons won this rep convincingly, and keep that pocket movement in mind for later.


In the same quarter, the Giants found themselves in the far Red Zone, and on 1st-and-10 come out in a 3×1 set, this time to the left side. The Falcons come with the same nickel blitz to the strong side of the formation. Probably wary of their previous shows, the safety to the trips does not spin down hard, but the boundary safety still rotates over to the middle of the field. Please see below:

The Giants are running mirrored Post-Wheel routes, the same concept on both sides of the field. This is one of the more basic reads for a QB, two half-field reads that can not be made into a true full-field read. The quarterback simply picks the side he likes best. Evan Engram ran the wrong route (the broadcast view shows Manning conversing with him after the play), but Manning’s choice could be an indicator of who he feels most comfortable with. Despite probably knowing the strong side rotation was coming, he chose not to throw to the Barkley/Beckham side of the field. Barkley, in particular, is interesting, because his matchup ends up being a linebacker. The backside wheel route into the boundary is very dangerous because there are so few coverage options for the defense.


Just two plays later on 3rd-and-10, the Giants yet again face the same nickel blitz from a 3×1 set. Now the defense will play a softer coverage look with the underneath defenders holding depth at the first down marker. The Giants have Beckham on the inside slot to the right side. Please see below:

The Giants have two post routes called for their inside slot receivers, a common combination to beat single-high coverage. Manning again reads that part correctly. The read here is somewhat difficult: if Beckham can get across the face of the deep safety, the throw should go to him. If that middle safety bites hard on his break, then the ball should go to the second post, in this case, Shepard. As Manning reads this, he slides a bit to his right, probably anticipating the front side blitzer. If you watch the end zone view, he continues to drift left and he ultimately throws high to Shepard. Defensive pass interference could have been called, but either way, the placement was a bit off, with the earlier impact of blitzes still having lingering effects.


Many defenses have built in blitzes that are set to run against formation, personnel groupings, etc. The Falcons stuck with this blitz for the above five plays, and the benefits do not always equal sacks. Penetration in the pocket and lingering effects on a QB’s accuracy are just two aspects seen here. The look was frequent enough for Odell Beckham to clearly point out the blitzing Poole in the later stages of the game. The Giants were able to adjust to the initial pressure portion of this attack for the most part, but the five plays each had elements that are very telling for the Giants’ “lost” season. Each week, a new foe of varying ability presents some conundrum that stymies the offense, leading to a rotation of media scapegoats. In reality, however, teams are doing this to each other week in and week out, and the Giants do not have the personnel to combat it. This personnel search is starting immediately and will pick up steam soon.