The Atlanta Falcons have a chance to basically clinch the NFC South with a win over the New Orleans Saints on Thursday Night Football. Standing in their way is a Saints team that handed the Falcons their only loss this year, in a Week 10 shootout in which both quarterbacks threw three touchdowns. More fireworks are expected Thursday Night, as both offenses are ranked in the top of the league, and both defenses have shown weakness in recent weeks.
Falcons Offense vs. Saints Defense
Tony Gonzalez, Julio Jones, Roddy White, Michael Turner, Jacquizz Rodgers, and on and on, the Atlanta Falcons have many dangerous weapons. Yet, the ebb and flow of this team goes with Matt Ryan. The Falcons outstanding quarterback is 3rd in the league in completions, and 2nd in the league in completion percentage.
We can attribute this to the Falcons shift away from a power run team. The Falcons have substituted short screens and swing passes to running backs in the flat instead of typical runs, partly because of the increased emphasis put on Ryan’s arm, and partly because of the ineffectiveness of the run game. After rushing for at least 1,300 yards and 11 touchdowns the last two 2 seasons, Turner’s 3.5 yards per carry is the lowest of his career, and he is unlikely to reach 1,000 yards this season.
Where the Falcons running game has lessened, the passing game is flourishing. Roddy White already has 1,003 yards receiving, Julio Jones needs 117 yards to make that plateau, and Tony Gonzalez could reach that mark as well, giving the Falcons three weapons to make 1,000 yards receiving this season. Standing in their way is the New Orleans Saints 32nd ranked defense.
New Orleans is misleading statistically, because the Saints have played much better on defense as of late. If you take off 14 for the two pick sixes Drew Brees threw, the Saints only gave up 17 to Kaepernick and the 49ers last week. Thursdays game against the Saints 30th ranked passing defense seems destined to be a passing display, the Saints secondary needs a huge day against an offense that has struggled to get the ball in the end zone in recent weeks. Once again, safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper are tested against an offense with viable deep threats and a tight end capable of creating mismatches. Cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson need to avoid mistakes against White and Jones, otherwise the safeties are stretched thin containing Gonzalez and watching for White and Jones deep. The Saints will need to manufacture pressure against an outstanding Falcons offensive line. Otherwise, Ryan may slice apart this Saints defense.
Saints Offense vs. Falcons Defense
The Saints are desperate to keep their playoff hopes alive and angry after an underperforming early this season. An egging of the Saints bus at Atlanta airport probably stirs the emotion a little more. Drew Brees and company will need to put up points on the road to win this match of highflying offenses. Brees is having another superb year, despite missing suspended coach Sean Peyton. Brees leads the league in touchdown passes, and will soon go over 4,000 yards for the seventh straight season.
This season, Brees has distributed the ball extremely well, with six players over twenty catches, and eight different players with touchdowns. Unfortunately, a weakness was exposed against the 49ers last week. With the right side of the Saints offensive line now on its third string, it creates problems across the entire offensive line. As the rest of the offensive line attempts to make up for a huge hole on the right side, it weakens the protection across the line making it easier to rush from any spot. This resulted in a Saints season high five sacks to four different players last week. John Abraham and Kroy Biermann could have big days rotating pressure on the right side. The return of Sean Weatherspoon for the Falcons will help.
Weatherspoon is a premier run defender, pass rusher, and good in coverage, and his versatility will be critical defending against tight end Jimmy Graham in the middle. The Falcons 13th ranked passing defense may be without Asante Samuel, who is questionable and did not practice this week. The Falcons have struggled against the run lately, and New Orleans may look run the ball against a Falcons defense still adapting. Mike Nolan, Falcon’s defensive coordinator, has unveiled a three defensive tackle set meant to stop the run. Nolan’s new scheme looks a lot like a 3-4, which he has brought to many organizations, but is more of a hybrid 4-3 with a defensive end on roam. Last time these two teams faced Mark Ingram and Chris Ivory topped 50 yards, and the Saints ran the ball effectively to a win. With Weatherspoon back and the Falcons defense playing better against the run, Atlanta will look to dig in and rush a weakened Saints line. Look for the Saints to work the run against a defense lacking identity, and for Brees to exploit a weakened secondary.