Preston's Saints @ Falcons Preview: Sloppy Seconds

Get ready for a fistfight with little brother. The last time the Saints played in Atlanta, not only did they come away victorious, but after the game they posed for pictures on the field for a documentary of sorts that was to catalogue their trip back to the Super Bowl (the trip ended prematurely in Seattle).

Did you forget about that? The Falcons didn't. The Saints came into their house, handed them a loss, and then humiliated them by taking over the place with a photographer and camera crew.

If you're an LSU fan, you can compare it to a certain team lighting cigars and posing for pictures after a win in Death Valley a few years ago. Staying with the NFL, this act was similar to the Titans players stomping on the Steelers' terrible towels.

New Orleans versus Atlanta has a collegiate feel to it - it's that sort of rivalry. As much talk as Steelers/Ravens gets, I think you can rank Saints/Falcons right next to it. We know the players on one team "hate" the players on the other team, but it goes further: our fans hate their fans, and vice-versa. It's city against city.

Quick question: whenever the Saints lose a free agent they want to keep, or part ways with a beloved player, who is the LAST team Saints fans would like to see them go to? Here's a test: if the words "Atlanta" and "Falcon" put together, result in the rise of vomit in the back of your throat, you know what I'm talking about. 

Like that little brother who tries to emulate his older sibling, the Falcons have tried to copy every aspect of the Saints offense. They went out and got that mismatch creating tight-end. They drafted a running back with Darren Sproles/Reggie Bush- type skills. They mortgaged the future on a WR who can stretch the field to pair with Roddy White in order to get more explosive. Over the years, they've "stolen" former Saints players, too many to list, but most notably the Saints all-time leading scorer, Morten Anderson. Atlanta was quick to pounce just like that little brother going after the big brother's ex-girlfriends. It has only added to the rivalry.

When you play against a division rival, you can throw all statistics and conventional wisdom out the window. I don't care if one team is dominating their opponents every week and the other looks like a Pop Warner team. Division rivals know each other too well. In the offseason when building a roster, they add players with interdivision matchups as the defining parameter. Atlanta has studied the Saints very closely, and every game from the last two years came down to the last minute.

Their best chance of making the playoffs is winning the division. To do that, they need to beat New Orleans. The winner of Sunday's game will be sitting atop the NFC South, while the loser will get sloppy seconds. I don't think this Week 10 matchup could feel any bigger for either team.

Atlanta's offense can pose real problems because they will eat up the clock. They started the season with Jason Garrett Syndrome: forgetting that your team is built for power running and ball control while trying to play with your new toys in the passing game. Yet the last few weeks, the Falcons remembered what led them to success a year ago and started to use their run to set up everything else. 

Atlanta should be able to move the ball against the Saints much the same way the Texans did. The biggest difference between Atlanta's and Houston's offenses is that with Roddy White and Julio Jones, Atlanta has two guys who can legitimately stretch the field. I think it would be a critical mistake to try and double those two and leave the middle of the defense exposed.

The Saints need to keep everything in front of them, clog up the passing and running lanes in the middle of the field, and force Atlanta (Matt Ryan) to beat them on the edges. Yes, they have White and Jones, but they clearly haven't shown the ability to win a game on the merit of those two alone. You see, Matt Ryan is the captain of the checkdown, and as long as the middle of the Saints defense plays stout, Ryan will have to make tougher throws more often to try and open up the defense. 

The Falcons may have a few big pass plays from this strategy, but they won't occur consistently, and one or two big completions to White or Jones mixed in with 4 or 5 three-and-outs is better than every drive being of the time consuming, ball control variety that would result in trying to make those two non-factors.  

What I am saying is that the Saints should prioritize which part of the field to defend by putting their focus on shutting down Turner, Gonzales, and the slot WR, while funneling White and Jones to the boundaries with their coverage and by jamming them at the LOS, throwing off their timing in the process. Dallas gave the blueprint for beating the Patriots by doing just that, and the Jets used the same strategy against Buffalo last week. It simply takes longer to throw down the field patterns to the sidelines. That 15-yard "out" is one of the toughest passes to throw (especially when the timing is off), and it takes time to develop, time that allows pressure to get to the QB.

In order for this plan to work, the defensive line has to look at the offensive line's performance last week and take it as a challenge to their manhood. They have to decide that they are going to be more physical this week while the offensive line has to continue the domination it displayed against Tampa. The Saints defensive backs and linebackers need to be physical with Atlanta's wide receivers and throw off their timing. Stopping the run on early downs is what will force Atlanta into more favorable downs and distances. It will force Atlanta to throw and leave no doubt for Gregg Williams and the defense whether the next play will be a run or pass. The other thing that will do this for the Saints is their offense. Getting up by a few scores forces the other team to abandon the run, ball control, time- consuming plays, and play catch-up.  

I expect this game to be very close. The Falcons don't make many mistakes when it comes to penalties and turnovers, and as long as they keep a game close, they are able to stay balanced. That worries me. If the game stays close, I'm not confident the Saints can stop the run on defense and run the ball in a "4-minute offense" to kill the clock. As long as the Falcons stay in favorable downs and distances, like 3rd and 3, I'm nervous. I don't want to even see an important John Kasay field goal attempt and by comparison, the real "Matty Ice" is Atlanta's placekicker. At least we have Thomas Morstead.

The key to this game is being more physical. They must beat Atlanta at their own game by using the Falcons' game plan against them. The minute the Saints can beat the Falcons with ball control and an interior rushing attack is the minute everything else (think Drew picking them apart) opens up. The Saints' offense will have to start conservatively, as will their defense. The physical play is what will allow them to open things up. Get up by two scores grinding it out, and then go to the high-octane phase. They won't have an answer. If they are kicking field goals and the Saints are scoring touchdowns, eventually we will see the offense of old and all the Gregg Williams exotic blitzes. The defense compliments the offense perfectly when playing with a two-score lead. And when you have that lead, you dictate what the other team can do.

The Saints ran back to relevance last week by showing a semblance of balance with an almost 200-yard rushing performance. The Saints don't need balance per se; what's important for this team is the ability to sell that they can be balanced if they want to. Just look at the Super Bowl against Colts. Psychologically, the Colts were concerned enough with the run that Drew Brees was able to have his way, despite the fact that the Saints ran with little success during the game (all because they were Top 5 in rushing in the NFL that year). Gregg Williams never respected the Colts ability or willingness to run, and in the end, the Colts leaned on their passing game until Tracy Porter's Pick 6, despite the success Williams willingly allowed them in the run game in order to drop everyone in coverage. 

Said another way, the Saints don't "need" to play balanced, but only show that when they choose to run, they can do it with success, between the tackles. They need to do this for multiple reasons, the least of which is to win this game. Most importantly, they need to be able to prove to themselves that if this is what will be needed at spots in January, they can have confidence in doing it enough to make a defense respect the threat. There is nothing more demoralizing than a team running it down your throat when you know it's coming-- especially in the 4th Quarter when you need the ball and time to score.

Atlanta's defensive line is much more solid this year. They have a Top 10 LB corps if you ask me - some real tackling machines. Clarence Weatherspoon and Curtis Lofton are leading Atlanta in tackles - it's a good sign for a defense when the LBs lead the team in tackles as opposed to the safeties. By comparison, the Saints three leading tacklers are DBs (number one and two are safeties, the last line of defense) - not good.  Atlanta's secondary still has a few question marks, but in order to take full advantage, the Saints need to establish the run so that the play-action fakes create hesitation with those aggressive linebackers and young safeties. 

The Saints have the ability to stretch Atlanta's defense horizontally and vertically. I believe the Saints should use a similar game plan on offense as the one they used a week ago against Tampa. They forced the Bucs to defend every part of the field, and it really made things easier in the passing game when Tampa couldn't hedge their bet on the next play being a run or pass. If the Saints can match their physical play from a week ago, I believe little brother will get put back in his place and be delegated to sloppy seconds in the division as New Orleans takes the clear lead with a 31 to 23 victory.

Stat Time:

Offense -

1 Saints - 31.9 points per game, 445 yards per game, 6.3 yards per play, 56% conversion on 3rd down, 32:17 time of possession, -6 turnover margin

14. Falcons - 23.6 ppg, 347 ypg, 5.4 ypp, 45% 3rd down, 31:23 TOP, +2 TO margin

Passing Offense -

2. Saints - 319 ypg, 7.9 yards per attempt, 71% completion, 21 tds, 11 ints, (33) 20+ yard pass completions, 19 sacks given up, 100.6 qb rating

17. Falcons - 228 ypg, 7.1 ypa, 60.6% completion, 12 tds, 9 ints, (22) 20+ yard passes, 19 sacks given up, 83.0 qb rating

Rushing Offense -

9. Saints - 126 ypg, 4.7 yards per carry, 9 tds, 2 fumbles lost, (8) 20+ yard runs

14. Falcons - 119 ypg, 4.3 ypc, 9 tds, 1 fumble lost, (6) 20+ yard runs

Defense -

14. Falcons - 21.2 ppg, 342 ypg, 5.6 ypp, 42% 3rd down conversions allowed

15. Saints - 22.8 ppg, 348 ypg, 5.7 ypp, 36% on 3rd downs

Pass Defense -

14. Saints - 228 ypg, 6.7 ypa, 55.3% completion, 14 tds, 4 ints, (21) 20+ yard passes allowed, 20 sacks, 85.3 opposing qb rating

19. Falcons - 245 ypg, 7.4 ypa, 62.6% completion, 10 tds, 10 ints, (28) 20+ yard pass plays, 15 sacks, 82.1 qb rating

Rush Defense -

7. Falcons - 97 ypg, 4.0 ypc, 6 tds, 5 fumble recoveries, (3) 20+ yard runs allowed

17. Saints - 120 ypg, 5.3 ypc, 7 tds, 4 fumble recoveries, (10) 20+ yard runs

Overall Statistical Analysis:  The Falcons have the ability to be more explosive on offense than their stats show. They are starting to figure out how to get where they want to take their passing attack by creating a successful blend with the rushing plays and checkdown passes that were a staple of their offense a year ago. However, they still aren't there yet. "There" is where the Saints are on offense right now. "There" is efficiency coupled with explosive plays in both the run and pass and clear ability to stretch a defense both ways. "There" is #1, which is where the Saints sit offensively. The Falcons have given up the same amount of sacks as the Saints, yet they don't have near as many 20+ yard pass completions. In short, Atlanta is still morphing from ball control to explosive dictation created by matchup advantages, but they are in the learning stage.

On the defensive side of the ball, Atlanta has been stout against the run. They've given up more explosive pass plays and a higher completion %, but they have more interceptions to level it out. They haven't gotten to the QB as much as they'd like with the duo of Ray Edwards and John Abraham, but they've been quietly solid enough to keep a game close when their offense is playing balanced. They've got the better group of linebackers, which explains the rush defense, while the Saints have the edge in the secondary, which explains the pass defense. The defense is a wash and it will come down to how predictable each offense will be in situational football: 3rd and short, red zone efficiency, etc. Whoever can win the line of scrimmage will win the game. Nothing new.

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