One of the pivotal matchups between the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints in the first game of the regular season will be the battle in the trenches. The Falcons invested heavily in their offensive and defensive lines this offseason to try and improve there.
A year ago, the Falcons were worked over by the Saints in the trenches. And frankly, outside their win against the Saints in 2012, the Falcons have regularly lost that battle for several seasons now.
Thus if the Falcons are going to turn their fortunes against the Saints, it will star with their ability to win in the trenches. Let’s start with the Falcons revamped defensive line and how some of the key matchups may play out:
Falcons Interior Defensive Line vs. Saints Offensive Line
The Saints are still a predominantly right-handed offense. That means right guard Jahri Evans is a critical part of their rushing success. That is going to put pressure on Falcons left defensive ends Tyson Jackson and Malliciah Goodman to step up their games on Sunday.
Jackson will bear the brunt of Evans’ run-blocking. He was brought in by the Falcons to take on blockers and free up linebackers to attack downhill, but has struggled to get leverage throughout his limited snaps during the preseason. The Saints have regularly had rushing success against the Falcons, producing over 100 yards on the ground in four out of the past five game between the two teams.
Goodman will be tasked with beating Evans in the majority of passing situations, as he regularly supplants Jackson when the team is in their nickel sub-packages. Goodman has been impressive this summer, his second in the league, showing the ability to be a disruptive interior presence both against the pass and run.
How Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan deploys the team’s defense on Sunday will be an interesting tactic to watch unfold. Traditionally, the Falcons have predominantly utilized their nickel sub-package when facing the Saints. The Falcons lone win against the Saints in the past three seasons came in 2012, when the Falcons were in nickel for over three-quarters of the game. In the other three games under Nolan’s direction, they deployed nickel only about half the number of snaps.
If Nolan goes his usual route, it’s likely that Jackson and Goodman will split snaps. That would also put a limit on Paul Soliai’s reps, as he traditionally also leaves the field alongside Jackson in passing situations.
Jonathan Babineaux, the right end opposite Jackson in the team’s base front, also mans the spot next to Goodman in their four-man nickel front. It’s likely that Babineaux will see a large number of snaps given his presence in both the base and nickel fronts. That is not a new development for Babineaux, who was overused last season by playing in 87 percent of the Falcons’s defensive snaps last season according to premium website Pro Football Focus. Reducing Babineaux’s snaps could be aided by the presences of Ra’Shede Hageman and Corey Peters as regulars in the team’s rotation Sunday.
Hageman was erratic during the preseason, calling into question his conditioning, effort and maturity in some corners. It remains to be seen how much the Falcons will dump on Hageman’s plate this early in the season. Based off his play this summer, it might be best to try and ease him into the rotation as the year progresses, which potentially could better help rest Babineaux down the stretch after he turns 33 in October. But if the Falcons trust Hageman enough to give him serious reps against the Saints and he reflects it with good play, it could prove an early boon for the Falcons defense this season.
It has just been over two weeks since Peters returned to practice after missing about eight months recovering from a torn Achilles tendon. He was able to fully participate in practice this week, suggesting he could be ready to play on Sunday. Peters played as the team’s nose tackle last year and would be a good candidate to give Soliai some rest during the game. But Peters can also add some beef at defensive end in the team’s three-man fronts, and possibly also keep Babineaux fresher for the many passing downs the Falcons are likely to see against the Saints.
Now let’s switch gears to the opposite side of the ball, and see how the Falcons offensive line matches up against the Saints defensive front.
Falcons Offensive Line vs. Saints Defensive Line
The abilities of Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan are no secret to the Falcons, as he decimated their front last year. In last year’s season-opener, Jordan worked over Lamar Holmes in his first career start for three hurries, two pressures and also caused Holmes to miss a run block. In the Falcons second matchup against the Saints, Jordan beat Holmes once more for a sack, but Jeremy Trueblood and Tony Gonzalez bore the brunt of his wrath. They combined to give up a pair of hurries and a pressure, not counting one pressure that went against Gonzalez that was nullified by a penalty. Jordan’s comments this offseason that the Falcons blockers were mere “speedbumps” on his way to the quarterback are hard to dispute with based off his play a year ago.
That doesn’t factor in Junior Galette on the other side of the defense, who combined for a sack, four pressures and a pair of hurries in the two games against the Falcons.
And apparently defensive tackle Akiem Hicks is poised for a breakout year according to some Saints insiders. He worked over Garrett Reynolds for a pair of sacks in the second Falcons-Saints contest from a year ago, and beat Holmes for a sack in the opener.
In summary, the Falcons offensive line will have their hands full. But the team should be better able to handle Hicks, since they made a major upgrade at right guard over Reynolds by adding Jon Asamoah in free agency. If Jordan and Galette provide heat off the edge, improved play from the Falcons interior offensive line led by Asamoah, should allow quarterback Matt Ryan to step up in the pocket and still be able to deliver throws downfield.
The Falcons will likely try and give Holmes help with Jordan, in particular by using tight end Levine Toilolo to chip when the team is not utilizing four wide receivers on offense.
That will likely leave Galette on an island against rookie left tackle Jake Matthews. It will be a big test for Matthews in his first regular-season start at left tackle. Matthews fared well against a superior speed-rusher in Cameron Wake during the Falcons preseason opener against the Miami Dolphins, but that is not a guarantee for success against Galette. But expectations are high that Matthews will at least be able to hold his own.
But the focus will primarily be on Holmes. He’ll essentially have to “man up” against Jordan. If Holmes can play at a level where he can contain Jordan and not have to force the Falcons to keep a tight end in the lineup to chip, then it will allow them to open up their offense more with their four-wide sets. If Holmes can’t handle himself, then it could limit how effective the Falcons offense can be since the Falcons’ primary focus will switch from attacking the Saints defense to protecting Ryan.
Ultimately, this game will be a pivotal test for the Falcons. While there isn’t much expectation that the Falcons will dominate in the trenches, the goal is to be able to meet the Saints in a stalemate. The Saints feature one of the strongest groups of offensive and defensive linemen the Falcons will face this year, so it will be a good litmus test to determine whether or not what was a major weakness for the team in 2013 can potentially become a strength in 2014.