Five Keys to Victory Over the Saints

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Steven Jackson could be an important X-Factor on Sunday

Here are five areas that Falcons head coach Mike Smith is likely stressing this week as important for the Falcons’ chances of winning on Sunday in their season opener against the New Orleans Saints:

Short-Yardage Success

The Falcons struggled mightily trying to gain a single yard against the Saints in their Week 10 loss last year. They need to be able to keep the chains moving on the ground game. In the Falcons loss to the Saints last year, they had six rushing opportunities where they only had to get a yard to either score or move the chains, and failed to convert on four of those instances. Those failures included three chances when the Falcons were at the one-yard line and trying to score. But it just isn’t rushing the ball that the Falcons need to succeed in. Matt Ryan attempted 12 passes where the Falcons had 2 or less yards to go to move the sticks or score a touchdown, and managed to complete only two of those passes. Both of which went for scores. The Falcons had far less short-yardage scenarios in their win over the Saints last year, with only a pair of instances where they needed less than 2 yards to convert/score. In both instances they did so. But the Falcons certainly need to prove they can convert in those situations, particularly near the goalline.

No shootout

Falcons have the weapons to score against most defenses, but given the question marks up front the Falcons don’t want to get into a scenario where Saints rushers are pinning their ears back to get after Ryan. Remember, the Falcons are playing on the road where the conditions are hostile with crowd noise and comfort for the home quarterback. Trying to get into a shootout with Brees on his home turf is playing into the Saints hands. The Falcons can limit the shootout by controlling tempo with sound defense and controlling the clock with a steady ground attack led by running back Steven Jackson.

Pressure on the Quarterback

One of the keys to why the Falcons were able to pick off Brees five times last year was due to the pressure he saw. The Falcons managed only one sack in last year’s Week 13 victory, but hit Brees six times, up from only once in their Week 10 loss to the Saints. They were aided by the injury to right tackle Zach Strief, who was not 100% for the game. This year, they could be aided by Charles Brown, who will be starting his first NFL game at left tackle after nine career starts at right tackle over the past two seasons. If the pass rush can get going in a hostile environment on the road to start the season, it will be a strong indicator for potential success the rest of the season as well.

Pass Protection

While the Saints don’t have feared pass rushers, players like Cameron Jordan, Akiem Hicks, Martez Wilson, among others are licking their chops to have a breakout game. The onus will be on the Falcons front to prevent that from happening. The biggest question mark up front for Atlanta is right tackle Lamar Holmes, who had a subpar preseason performance. Expect the Falcons to use Tony Gonzalez and running backs to chip to give Holmes some added help. But this likely means that the other four starters up front for the Falcons might find themselves on islands, and must be able to shoulder that load.

Redzone Conversions

The team that takes full advantage of their redzone opportunities is going to be in a prime position to win. In the first contest, the Saints successfully scored touchdowns on 2 of their 3 (or 67%) redzone trips. The Falcons however only got the ball into the endzone on 3 of their 6 (50%) trips. One of those failures on the Falcons’ part came in the final minutes of the game where the Falcons couldn’t punch it on three tries from inside the Saints’ 2 yard-line. In the Falcons second matchup, the Falcons were successful at scoring touchdowns on 2 of their 3 trips (67%), while the Saints on only 1 of their 3 (33%). Falcons-Saints games are almost always close, and 1 or 2 failed redzone trips where a team is forced to settle for three points instead of seven can often make the difference.

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Aaron Freeman
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