I wanted to look at all 13 opponents the Falcons would face this year and give a preview of what these teams will be looking for in their upcoming training camps as well the upcoming 2013 season. Let’s start things with the New Orleans Saints, who the Falcons will open their season against.
The big question mark about the Saints going into this summer will be their defense. They have a new defensive coordinator in Rob Ryan, fresh from a two-year stint in Dallas that did not net ideal results.
Like Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, Ryan is an aficionado of multiple fronts and given that the Saints still retain key personnel from their 4-3 days (such as end Will Smith) but have also acquired players more attuned to the 3-4 (e.g. Kenyon Coleman, Victor Butler) indicate that they will be a multiple-look defense.
One of the key questions about the Saints’ new-look defense will be their ability to generate pressure. While affecting the quarterback wasn’t a major obstacle for the Saints in their two matchups against the Falcons last year, it was something they struggled with throughout 2012.
They brought in Victor Butler from Dallas for this reason, but he went down with a season-ending ACL tear last month, and it will be on players like Smith, Junior Gallette, and Martez Wilson to step up and fill the void. Wilson was a player I liked a lot coming out of Illinois, and he flashed potential in limited reps last year (3 sacks), so he could become an X-factor for them. A strong camp from him or one of the others could be indicative of success for the Saints.
But if we’re talking about Ryan’s “failure” in Dallas, the primary culprit was their secondary which gave up a ton of big plays (25th most in the league), didn’t get stops (31st in terms of passing 1st downs allowed), and created few turnovers (7 interceptions were tied for lowest in the league). Ryan inherits a Saints defense that gave up more big plays (28th), was the only team that allowed a higher rate of 1st downs than the Cowboys pass defense, and their 15 interceptions were only averaged (14th ranked).
The Saints brought in first round safety Kenny Vaccaro and free agent Keenan Lewis from Pittsburgh to help improve in these areas.
Personally, I thought Vaccaro was one of the more overrated of the first round prospects in this past year’s draft. But he features good speed and range, and he’s an above average cover safety having been tasked with covering slot receivers while at Texas. Ryan will likely task him to take over for Roman Harper who is a liability in coverage, and they’ll try to take advantage of Vaccaro’s versatility and utilize him all over the field in coverage, run support, and as a blitzer.
Lewis had no interceptions last year, but did break up 23 passes, which ranked near the top of the league. His size and length (6-1/208) will be counted on heavily to match up against the Falcons newly featured No. 1 wideout in Julio Jones.
But keys for the Saints will be getting improved production from incumbent starters like Jabari Greer and Malcolm Jenkins. Greer’s age, 31, is starting to catch up to him. He’s proven himself to be an effective matchup against Roddy White, but some cracks are beginning to show. Jenkins was one of the better cover safeties in the league his first two years at the position, but really struggled last season. He’s already been limited somewhat this off-season with a hamstring injury. If the Saints defense expects to make a dramatic turnaround this year, then both of them will need to step up their game.
But the truth is that the Saints don’t need to be a great defense to return to their winning ways in 2013. Much of their success will still be contingent on their offense. With the return of head coach and play-caller Sean Payton, there is no reason to expect the Saints offense to not improve from a group that even without Payton was arguably a Top 5 unit in 2012.
There will be a few changes, notable is that long-time vertical threat Devery Henderson is gone after a lackluster 2012 campaign. He’ll be replaced by whomever emerges from the group that includes Joe Morgan, Nick Toon, and rookie Kenny Stills. Morgan has speed to burn and certainly has the potential to fill Henderson’s shoes as a vertical threat. Toon missed last year with a foot injury, and is more of a sure-handed possession receiver. Stills was highly productive at Oklahoma and offers comparable skillset to No. 2 receiver Lance Moore.
If the Saints can get adequate production from any or all of that trio, it’s only going to make their offense more potent. Drew Brees is arguably the best in the business at distributing the ball to multiple receivers, and giving him more tools to play with doesn’t bode well for opposing defenses.
But the biggest question mark facing the Saints offense will be their offensive line. They have a vacant spot at the left tackle position, where Charles Brown and rookie Terron Armstead are expecting to compete. They managed to get by for years with middling Jermon Bushrod at the spot, so it’s not as if they need either player to be the next Willie Roaf. But if that spot proves to be a liability, it will be troubling for their offense especially for a player such as Osi Umenyiora, who regularly preys on weak tackles. Across the line, injuries limited right tackle Zach Strief last year. The team brought in Jason Smith, former top pick and bust with the Rams to solidify depth. That remains to be seen, and if the Saints can’t get consistency from either position, it could spell trouble for their offense.
Another key position battle will be for the backup quarterback spot. Brees has been as durable as they come the past six years in New Orleans, so it’s unlikely to impact their season, but it’s a potential problem area. They will feature a competition between former Falcon Luke McCown and Seneca Wallace. McCown spent time briefly with the Saints last summer before joining the Falcons, and Wallace was out of the league last fall after being released by the Browns. Regardless of who wins, the last thing the Saints want to see is anyone not named Brees in the lineup under center.
Overall, the Saints will need a few players to emerge from some key position battles, but the core of the Saints team is well intact and eyeing a spot in January. The positive for the Saints is that their defense really has nowhere to go but up in 2013. That coupled with one of the league’s most consistent offensive attacks should net them much-improved results this fall, potentially competing for the NFC South crown.