The 5-0 Atlanta Falcons take on their division rival in the NFC South in the 1-4 New Orleans Saints on Thursday Night Football. Coming off a short week in which the Falcons eked out an overtime win over the Washington Redskins while the Saints are coming off a 39-17 beatdown at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles, a team the Falcons beat in Week One.
That coupled with the two team’s respective records might indicate that the Falcons should roll easily in this week’s contest, but given the fact that divisional games are so often closer than the records show should make one skeptical of a potential blowout by the Falcons.
Especially given that they are on the road, a situation that has seen the Falcons start slowly both against the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys in Weeks Two and Three. If the same happens tonight, it will play more to the strengths of the Saints rather than the Falcons.
This won’t be as in-depth a preview as I’ve written over the first month of the season, largely due to time constraints not allowing me to devote the amount of time and tape study I have in past weeks. But I still would like to outline both team’s gameplans and how each one will attempt to disrupt them.
Let’s start with the Falcons offense…
Offensive Key For Success: Surviving Without Julio
— Tracy Wolfson (@tracywolfson) October 15, 2015
One of the main concerns the Falcons have entering the game is the health of wide receiver Julio Jones. While Jones is expected to play against the Saints, it remains to be seen how well he will play given the toe and hamstring injuries that have limited him over the past month. Based off the past two weeks’ contests, expectations should be low especially given the limited amount of rest he’s received going into tonight’s contest.
In essence, it’s a real possibility that Jones will mostly act as a decoy for the Falcons offense against the Saints rather than a reliable, impact playmaker.
If that is the case, then the Falcons will have to find ways to motivate their passing game without Jones having a substantial impact.
Jones has been targeted 43 times through the first five games this season, accounting for 23 percent of quarterback Matt Ryan’s pass attempts. His 545 receiving yards make up 37 percent of the team’s total yardage through the air as well. Eliminating Jones from the offense essentially means that the team will now be operating at 77 percent capacity, or perhaps even as low as 63 percent.
That’s obviously a substantial dropoff. Thus it is critical that other players in the passing game step up this week. Other receivers like Leonard Hankerson, Roddy White and tight end Jacob Tamme are going to have pull substantially more weight than they have for much of the 2015 season.
At least in the cases of Hankerson and Tamme, there have been times when the Falcons have seen both make considerable impacts in the passing game. Both players stepped up during the team’s comeback win over the Giants in Week Two, and Hankerson was the team’s leading receiver against the Houston Texans in Week Four. Tamme was the team’s leading receiver last week against the Redskins. Essentially, if the Falcons can find ways to allow both players to operate at similar capacities this week as they have done the past two, then they should be fine if Jones is limited.
Between the two, Tamme has the more favorable matchup against a Saints defense that has struggled to defend the tight end. According to Football Outsiders, the Saints defense ranks 31st in the league in terms of DVOA against by tight ends.
Last week, the Eagles tight ends combined for eight catches for 104 yards and a touchdown against the Saints defense. Two weeks earlier, Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen produced eight catches, 134 yards and two scores against the Saints.
Tamme will likely be put into a position where he will have to carry a significant portion of the Falcons passing attack if Jones is not his usual self due to his toe and hamstring injuries.
However the brunt of the Falcons offense will not be reliant on the pass-catchers, but rather on the ground.
Offensive Key For Success: Pounding the Rock
The Falcons offensive gameplan will mostly center on running the football as their most effective means of moving the chains and hopefully capping those drives off with touchdowns.
Expect the Falcons to look a lot more conservative against the Saints than they have throughout the tenure of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, as he’ll likely be stealing some pages from the playbook of Mike Mularkey in the hopes of gearing the offense towards being more sustaining rather than explosive.
That was the case last week against the Redskins, when the Falcons had a season-low two plays of more than 20 yards throughout the entire game. It’s not a coincidence that the offense only accounted for 19 points, their lowest total of the season.
The Falcons will hope to generate more points, but it will be dependent on them getting the running game going. The Saints run defense is fairly soft, as they allowed an Eagles offense that had averaged just 70 rushing yards per game prior to their meeting put up 186 yards on the ground. That’s the same Eagles offense that only rushed for 63 yards against the Falcons defense in the season opener.
The play of the Falcons offensive line and running back Devonta Freeman have kicked into high gear the past three weeks as the team has totaled 469 rushing yards in that same span. There’s every reason to believe that the Falcons could eclipse their season-high of 176 rushing yards tonight against the Saints if all goes well.
However the Saints will know that the run is coming. Given the limitations of Jones, the team will be less fearful of stacking the front with eight defenders and could opt to risk playing a lot more Cover-1 this week. The Redskins were able to keep Jones in check a week ago with backup cornerbacks like Bashaud Breeland and Will Blackmon, thus the Saints should have a good deal of confidence that physical players like Brandon Browner, Delvin Breaux, Keenan Lewis and Damian Swann should be better able to handle Jones.
Yet even though the Saints might know that the Falcons are going to be devoted to running the football, doesn’t mean that they will be able to stop it. The Redskins also knew that the Falcons were going to run the ball and were able to stack the box, yet the Falcons still rushed for 176 yards on the ground. That certainly bodes well for Atlanta.
Frankly, what may wind up stopping the Falcons running game may have a lot less to do with what the Saints do defensively, but rather their offense.
Defensive Key For Success: Slowing Down the Saints
The Saints’ best weapon against the Falcons running game may be getting off to a fast start and forcing the Falcons to play from behind. That would put more onus on the Falcons to throw the ball rather than rely on their running game.
Ideally the Saints would love to open up a multi-score lead very early in the game to get the Falcons off their gameplan. In order to do so, they’ll need their offense to begin clicking better than it has at any point this year.
The Saints are averaging just 4.0 points per game in the first quarter, which is slightly lower than the Falcons own 4.8 first-quarter points per game.
That will have to change this week. To facilitate early scoring, the Saints might have to benefit from some untimely Falcons turnovers but also generate their own big plays. They’ll need speedsters like Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead and C.J. Spiller to have a substantial impact on the game from the outset.
That will be harder for receivers Cooks and Snead, who will be facing one of the league’s top emerging pairs of cornerbacks in Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. Cooks typically lines up on the right side of the formation, while Snead on the left meaning that they’ll face Trufant and Alford, respectively for much of the night. It will be a tough task getting either of them loose against the Falcons corner.
One way the Saints could combat this is by deploying either receiver in the slot more this week than they have in past weeks. Regular starter and slot receiver Marques Colston is doubtful for the game, and likely will be supplanted by second-year receiver Brandon Coleman, another tall, rangy receiver.
While Coleman has tools to work with, mainly his 6-6 frame, he doesn’t present a major matchup nightmare for the Falcons weakest corner in nickel cornerback Phillip Adams. Adams’ own size (5-11) makes him substantially better against bigger receivers than he is against faster ones as the following image from the Giants game shows:
Thus if the Saints try to integrate either Cooks or Snead more in the slot this week, then it could present favorable matchups for the their offense.
If the Saints can’t generate and exploit mismatches at the cornerback position, they will have to be reliant on running back C.J. Spiller creating some at linebacker.
The Falcons have struggled against speedier running backs throughout this season, and losing veteran linebacker Justin Durant to an arm injury will hurt their chances to show improvement this week against the Saints.
The Cowboys were able to expose the limited range of the Falcons linebackers using shallow crossing and arrows routes by running back Lance Dunbar out of the backfield. However the Falcons did a good job defending them in the second half thanks in part of Durant’s recognition and ability to close on the ball. The next image shows a great example of a third-down stop by Durant early in the third quarter.
Compare that to an earlier play in the second quarter where Dunbar and the Cowboys were able to expose the less effective middle linebacker Paul Worrilow.
It will be important that Worrilow and other Falcons linebackers like Brooks Reed, Nate Stupar and Joplo Bartu are able to deal with Spiller’s trademark speed and explosiveness.
The Saints haven’t done a great job getting Spiller that many touches on offense thus far this season, but tonight’s matchup should be a perfect opportunity to change that.
Defensive Key For Success: Creating Turnovers
As I’ve noted in the past, the Falcons have been very reliant on big plays to score points this year.
But given the nature of the running game, it’s unlikely to yield a ton of big runs that will lead to Flacons scoring. While the Falcons will hope that their success on the ground opens up opportunities to take shots downfield via play-action passing, their overall gameplan isn’t likely to yield them a ton of points.
If that proves to be the case, then the Falcons will need to get frequent stops on defense and that might often need to come in the form of turnovers. Turnovers have helped the Falcons offense tremendously thus far this year, as the team is second only to the Arizona Cardinals in points generated off takeaways.
Their 46 points off 10 turnovers means that they’re averaging about 4.6 points per turnover. Thus if the Falcons can create just two turnovers this week, that should give them at least nine additional points on offense.
Any turnovers the Falcons generate on defense will act essentially as big plays for the offense because they often set them up in favorable field position.
The way the Falcons will try to create turnovers is by pressuring Saints quarterback Drew Brees. Brees’ career interception rate against the Falcons since joining the Saints in 2006 is roughly 3 percent. That’s slightly higher than his career rate as a Saint of 2.5 percent.
That high rate owes itself in large part to the five-interception performance Brees had against the Falcons defense in 2012. Excluding that game from his total and his career interception rate against the Falcons would drop to about 2.4 percent. The Falcons were successful in creating turnovers by getting substantially more pressure that week than they had most games against Brees.
Then, John Abraham and Kroy Biermann were able to prey upon an injured Zach Strief at right tackle. This week, the Saints will feature a rookie left tackle Andrus Peat replacing Terron Armstead. Strief remains and his last performance against the Falcons saw him struggle quite a bit against Biermann.
That should mean good things for the Falcons defense this week as Vic Beasley and O’Brien Schofield are substantially better pass-rushers than Biermann is. The Falcons should also benefit from Saints injuries at guard. Left guard Tim Lelito will miss this game and it will mark right guard Jahri Evans’ first action back after missing three games. That should present very favorable matchups for interior pass-rushers Adrian Clayborn and Jonathan Babineaux.
With the pressure dialed up substantially, the Falcons should be able to get after Brees and force him to make some errant throws to the players in the red and black uniforms.
The Falcons are the superior team, but playing on the road with a limited Julio Jones doesn’t make me believe that they will be able to fully flex their muscle. Also the loss of Durant on defense could continue to expose the weakest part of their defense: the middle of it, to some big plays.
If that is the case, then it should allow the Saints to be competitive for much of the game. However, the Falcons are a much more disciplined team than the Saints have shown to date. And that likely means that the Falcons will be better able to exploit any mistakes the Saints make rather than vice versa.
Thus I expect the Falcons to be in control throughout the night, mostly due to their running game and their defense being able to get stops and create turnovers. But it may not be reflected in the final score.
Predicated Final Score: Falcons 24, Saints 17