The cat-and-mouse game of defensive scheming decided both playoff matches yesterday, but in different ways. In Denver, the Steelers stacked the box, daring Tim Tebow to throw. He did. But at the Meadowlands, on a pair of fourth down conversions, the Falcons telegraphed a pair of sneaks up the middle, daring the Giants to stack the box. When they did, Matt Ryan took it up the gut anyway. Mike Smith is a foolish mouse who tells the cat he's going to zig, then does.
No one should be calling out Smith today for going for it. Plug it in to the Fourthdownulator if you need cold, hard robot confirmation, or just ask any offensive player how they feel about pulling the offense off the field in that situation. By any measure, statistical or instinctual, it was the correct move. Just not very good calls.
On the first play of the second quarter, in a scoreless game, the Falcons lined up one receiver, with two men in the backfield. The Giants committed a safety over the middle, but otherwise brought everyone up for the inevitable QB sneak. That's exactly what Atlanta called, but why was it inevitable? It's what they've been doing all year.
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 Justin Tuck 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."
The second fourth-and-inches was even more predictable. The Falcons lined up four receivers, but emptied their backfield. In a league where even the coaches with the balls to go for it on fourth-and-short don't have the balls to throw it, and with a team that's been running the sneak into the ground, the call was all too obvious. So are the questions.
You're down a score in the second half of a playoff game. You need less than a yard? Why is Michael Turner sitting on the bench? Only Mike Smith knows for sure, but it's not a leap to suggest he was gun shy. In week 10 against New Orleans, in overtime, Smith made another fourth-down call that drew major scrutiny. That one was a handoff to Turner, and that one also failed because of an odd play call. There was no attempt to spread the defense by sending out a receiver, and Turner lined up laughably deep in the backfield. New Orleans stacked the box, Turner took the handoff five yards behind the line of scrimmage, and it was a safety that was able to come around and wrap him up before he could make up the ground.
Yesterday's play calls bore all the hallmarks of overcompensation for that very public failure against the Saints. On the first, the same two-man backfield meant to act as a decoy for the keeper. On the second, lining up four-wide, and removing Turner from the equation altogether. Nice thoughts, but the linebackers were still cheating in, the safeties cheating up, and the defense still expecting the sneak. The Giants' film sessions presumably covered more than one highly-publicized play in week 10.
"We ought to be able to move less than a half-yard with the quarterback sneak," Smith said after the game, and he's right. But with a pair of power backs, and one of the all-time great short yardage receivers in Tony Gonzalez, they also ought to have something else in the playbook. Matt Ryan's not finding any seams when the D is on red alert to close them up.