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4th and Geaux: Saints @ Falcons Edition

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The New Orleans Saints head to Atlanta this week to take on the Falcons in a game that probably isn’t as meaningful as we’d hoped it would be. Still, will this week’s bird hunting expedition be more successful than last week’s? Will the Saints be able to overcome the Falcons’ so-called home field invincibility? Will the Saints actually get the ball to their best running back this week?

It’s time for 4th and Geaux.

Note: This is an abbreviated 4th and Geaux, thanks to the holidays, impending deadlines in the job that actually pays me, and a couple of other issues. Don’t worry: I’ll be back in full inanity by playoff time.

Last Week in Review

As I wrote in my game review, I felt that last week’s loss to the Ravens was actually a quasi-positive thing, as losses go. Why? Well, it comes down to expectations. If you believed that the Saints’ 10-3 record (going into last week) meant they were one of the top 3 teams in the NFL (after all, only 2 more teams had more wins than the Saints last week), then you were probably disappointed by the Saints’ performance. After all, they weren’t dominant at any point in the game, and were dominated for much of the game, especially on defense.

However, if you believed, like I did, that the Saints were closer to the middle of the NFL pack than the front, then probably saw this game as a chance for the Saints to prove their mettle against a superior opponent in a hostile, playoff-like atmosphere. In my opinion, the Saints looked pretty good considering the circumstances: while they didn’t win, they did hang with a team that is probably better than they are, and were a few breaks away from winning.

Put another way, the Saints’ performance affirmed that they are a team to be reckoned with: they can come into anyone’s stadium and give them a good game. That’s a sign of a team that, with a little luck and better execution, could put together a good playoff run, especially with the way the playoff field will likely line up this year.

Now that I think about it, I was actually more upset by several of the Saints’ victories this year (Arizona, Cincinnati, and Carolina, I’m looking your way) than I was by this loss. There’s no shame in losing a close game on the road to a superior opponent.

Now, this doesn’t mean that it wasn’t an extremely frustrating game, and one that we could have, and maybe should have, won. The offensive line was TERRIBLE at both run and pass blocking. The defense’s matador-esque tackling technique was rather ineffective. The special teams continued to be rather, uh, "special". Despite these shortcomings, the Saints’ nearly won on the road against a Super Bowl contender. Not bad for an off week.

Sizing up the Opponent

Well, well, well, it’s Falcons time. When they met back in September, the Saints generally played well, with two glaring problems: the turnover battle (2 interceptions and a lost fumble) and special teams (The Kick Heard Round The World). We didn't know at the time that the turnovers and special teams struggles would be an overture to much of what's been frustrating about the Saints this year.

While this rematch doesn’t have the spice that it might have, there’s still plenty on the line here. This is only the third Monday Night Football game in history to feature two teams with at least 10 wins. The Saints need to win to keep ahead in the race for the critical #5 seed (which would allow them to make a trip to the NFC West in the first round of the playoffs…a valuable commodity). A win would also allow the Saints to hold on to their paper-thin hopes of winning the division.

The Falcons actually don’t need the win that badly (they need to win one more game to lock up home field advantage throughout the playoffs, but they face Carolina next week), but would love the opportunity to sew up the division and #1 seed while asserting themselves on a national stage by beating the defending champions. These teams are fairly well-matched: Football Outsiders and Advanced NFL Stats both have the Saints rated slightly higher than the Falcons, but Sagarin and Pro Football Reference have the Falcons rated slightly higher. This should be a fun game.

Let’s go into more detail in Statpoints.

Saints Statpoints

Saints’ offense vs. Falcons’ defense

This matchup favors the Saints. Even in this off year, the Saints have a top 10 offense in the NFL (7th according to Football Outsiders, 9th according to Advanced NFL Stats) and the Falcons are not a particularly strong defensive team. If the Saints’ offense executes, they should be able to score some points.

The Falcons are pretty balanced on defense: they’re middle-of-the-road in both passing and running defense. They do have a weakness against #1 receivers, though: they give up about 72 yards per game to #1 receivers, one of the worst rates in the league. Even if you adjust for situations, opponent strength, etc., the Falcons are still in the bottom third of the league against primary receivers. That could leave a few things open for one of the Saints’ receivers, although their offense is so diverse that it’s hard to tell which one. Lance Moore was the best receiver in the first Saints-Falcons matchup (149 yards, 2 touchdowns), but it could easily be Colston or Meachem this week.

Looking at the individual units, there are some good signs for the Saints. The Falcons’ defensive line has has only generated 25 sacks this year (which places them in the bottom 10 or so in the league). The Falcons’ d-line does better against the run (8th in the league per Football Outsiders), but their linebackers and secondary are really weak in run support, causing the Falcons to yield a below-average 4.6 yards per carry on the ground. The Saints aren’t a good running team, but if they can get a lead, the Falcons’ defense might be susceptible to clock-eating runs later in the game.

It’s not exactly offense, but special teams concerns me. The Falcons’ opponents have had the worst average starting field position in the league, and Football Outsiders rates the Falcons’ special teams as the third-best unit in the league, compared to 25th-best for the Saints*. In a game that could be close, the Saints’ poor special teams could come back to haunt them. Again.

*I recognize that field position isn’t solely a function of special teams play. However, special teams can flip the field position, making up for poor offensive or defensive performance

Saints’ defense vs. Falcons’ offense

The Falcons’ offense is a strong unit, but certainly not elite. They probably rank somewhere between the Saints’ offense and league average. Football Outsiders has them ranked 12th overall, Advanced NFL Stats has them ranked 17th overall.

There are 3 stars* on the Falcons’ offense: quarterback Matt Ryan, running back Michael Turner, and receiver Roddy White. Let’s look at the season that each of them is having and speculate a bit about how they match up against the Saints.

*You could make an argument for including the still-dangerous Tony Gonzalez, too. In fact, Gonzalez was the Falcons’ best receiver in the first Saints-Falcons game.

Matt Ryan is the budding star of this offense, and someone who gives me a bit of heartburn when I think about how good he might become. By any reasonable measure, Ryan’s been a top-10 quarterback this year, and he’s played a bit beyond his young age. I’m not looking forward to watching him develop. Ryan seems to have been equally good whether or not he’s being blitzed, so I’m not sure that the crazy Gregg Williams blitzy thing will work that well. Of course, Ryan’s excellence against the blitz may be a function of his offensive line: the Falcons’ sack rate (adjusted for situation) is 4th-best in the league.

Simply put, Matt Ryan is one of the best young quarterbacks in the league, and his offensive line helps keep him clean and gives him time to throw. That’s not good for the Saints, who are one of the bottom 10 teams in the league at generating pass rush. The onus will be on the secondary to cover the receivers as well as possible, hopefully creating a few turnovers while doing so. Fortunately, Ryan does not have a lot of weapons on offense. If he did, the Falcons would be truly scary.

Roddy White tops the NFL in receiving yards and has a solid 8 touchdowns. While he has certainly done a good job of getting open and catching the balls thrown to him (he has a 65% catch rate, which is about what you’d expect for a #1 receiver), there is one factor in his success that has been largely ignored: Roddy White’s has been the most thrown-to receiver in the league. 

White has had 167 passes thrown to him, which is the most in the league. The only other player close is Reggie Wayne with 159; the next group has around 120-130 targets. The next highest Falcon receiver is Michael Jenkins, who has been thrown 56 passes this year. While Tony Gonzalez makes up for this discrepancy somewhat, the Falcons are one of the most one-dimensional pass offenses in the league, and certainly the most one-dimensional of the Super Bowl contenders.* It shows in Matt Ryan’s passing stats: White may lead the league in receiving yards, but Ryan is only 11th in passing yards.

*For fun, look at the number of passes thrown to different receivers by Drew "Tee Ball" Brees: 127 to Colston, 78 to Mighty Mite Lance Moore, 51 to Meachem, and 51 to NeverSee Henderson. Of course, the Saints throw more than the Falcons do, but even once you account for it, the Saints’ passing game is much more diverse than the Falcons. 

The Saints did a pretty good job against White in the first matchup (holding him to 69 receiving yards in a game that went to overtime), and will need to do so again.

Michael Turner is a pretty good back who is having a pretty good year. He’s averaging 4.2 yards per carry, which is not particularly good for a top back. While the Saints gave up uberyardage to the good, but not great, Ray Rice last week, that was hopefully aberrational. Assuming the Saints’ defense has been appropriately shamed in practice this week, I think they should be able to contain Turner. Of course, that didn't work out so well in the last meeting, when the Falcons rushed for over 200 yards.

A lot of it depends on the Saints’ offense, though: if the Falcons get an early lead and are able to keep feeding the ball to Turner, the Saints’ defensive line very well might wear out, and the matador-style tackling might return.

That was way too long...could you just give me a one-paragraph summary and prediction?

Sure. This is a more important game for the Saints, but it’s still important for the Falcons. The teams are pretty evenly matched, so the Saints should have a chance if they can take the fairweather Falcons fans out of the game early, score some points, and let the defense go to work. I’m most concerned about what will happen to the Saints if they don’t score early, and let Michael Turner become a factor. We saw how Ray Rice did under similar circumstances last week. Although it’s close, I think the Saints will win this game, based on superior quarterbacking, superior coaching, and superior experience. If so, I wonder if Roddy White will respond on Twitter?

You can listen to Stuart each week on The Who Dat Report and the NFC South Report, or follow him on Twitter.