The Falcons are heading into this season looking for a way to return to their Super Bowl aspirations of a year ago. The first team that they’re being pit against is the New Orleans Saints, a team that certainly looks to be in contention for an appearance in Super Bowl XLIX. Which team will come out on top in Week 1, and how will they match up with each other as they attempt to start out the season on the right foot?
New Orleans Saints Key Additions: Jairus Byrd, Brandin Cooks, Jimmy Graham’s Foot
New Orleans Saints Key Losses: Lance Moore, Malcolm Jenkins, Jabari Greer, Will Smith, Roman Harper, Jonathan Vilma
Atlanta Falcons Key Additions: Jake Matthews, Paul Soliai, Devin Hester, Tyson Jackson, Jon Asamoah, Devonta Freeman, Julio Jones’s foot
Atlanta Falcons Key Losses: Tony Gonzalez, Asante Samuel, Thomas DeCoud, Jason Snelling
The Saints, of course, remained relatively stagnated in terms of player personnel after last season ended in disappointment against the Seattle Seahawks. Atlanta made a great deal more transactions than the Saints did in the offseason, but this is bound to happen when a 4-12 team is pitted up against an 11-5 one. However, for all of Atlanta’s changes, they didn’t necessarily address their biggest needs.
After having an abysmal pass rush in 2013, the Falcons signed Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson. While certainly an improvement over last year, both play well in the running game but don’t provide a ton of pressure (although Jackson has improved in this regard every year of his career, so the verdict is still out on him). Soliai is also on the tail end of his prime (at best). Atlanta tallied only 32 total sacks in 2013, and it’s debatable as to whether or not that number will greatly improve in the coming season.
The Falcons also addressed their offensive line, and this may end up being far more important. The signing of Jon Asamoah and drafting Lamar Holmes in 2012 actually proved to be a life-saver for Atlanta, not necessarily for their talent, but more for the fact that Holmes can now step into the Right Tackle position that Jake Matthews vacated to fill in for injured Left Tackle Sam Baker. Matthews will have his hands full in Week 1, going up against Pro Bowler Cam Jordan, and Holmes gets to deal with Junior Galette on the other end (usually). Depth was a nightmare for Atlanta in 2013, and they made it a very important point to address during the offseason. It will be interesting to see how Matthews performs under his trial by fire, and the Falcons hope to bring down their number of 44 sacks allowed last season.
The Falcons passing game shouldn’t be too woefully affected by the departure of Tony Gonzalez with the return of Julio Jones. Jones was on a tear to start last season, and after being derailed by a screw in his foot coming loose, any chance of the Falcons rebounding from their awful start went down with him. With that being said, it would be presumptuous to assume that he’s returning at 100% coming into this season, and even more presumptuous to expect him to play 16 games. Jones will always be affected by the injuries that he’s sustained, and the Saints’ secondary will likely try to exploit this by playing him very physically out of the gate in order to see how he adjusts.
The Saints face a similar situation with Jimmy Graham. Graham’s issues against physical defenses was well-documented in 2013. The Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots (namely Aqib Talib) were able to effectively shut down the 6’7" Tight End. The real question, however, is how Graham will look now that his foot has healed. Again, it seems foolish to assume that it’s at 100%, but Graham’s case is slightly different from Jones’s in the sense that he is adamant about his health, whereas Jones has been relatively mum about his condition. Graham will, of course, be played physically to start the season. That’s what worked before. The question is whether Graham’s torn plantar fascia was the true cause of his tendency to get bullied by bigger players, or whether it’s simply a mentality.
The addition of safety Jairus Byrd will prove to one of the most interesting storylines for the Saints defense. Byrd can fly around the field and create plays, something that Malcolm Jenkins, his predecessor, never necessarily did. Jenkins was very safe, but he rarely created plays (surprising for a converted corner). Byrd is more or less the opposite. He takes risks on the ball and relies on his athleticism to recover if they fail. If Byrd can come out and create more turnovers for a Saints defense that struggled to do so in 2013, particularly on the tail end, the defense should be able to overcome the regression that they may face in 2014 by seizing more opportunities.
The biggest question mark for the Saints defense remains at CB2. Roddy White will be seeing a lot of Patrick Robinson in Week 1, depending on how much man-to-man the Saints run, and this match-up may prove difficult for the Saints to deal with. Robinson is fast and athletic with tremendous closing speed, but he has a lot lacking cerebrally and he tends to get shoved around. White has lost a step, but he’s still a physical receiver that creates space in any way possible. Robinson may struggle against this style, but Saints coaching tends to play to player strengths, so it’s safe to assume (and safer to hope) that Rob Ryan won’t leave Robinson on an island too frequently and will shade some help is way.
Offensively, the Saints will have a decision to make. Attack the strong Atlanta secondary that surprised a lot of people last year, or try to instill the new running game philosophy early? This game could set the tone for the Saints season, and it’s important to set a good one. The Falcons defensive line doesn’t match up particularly well to the Saints strong returning line. Terron Armstead, Zach Strief, Tim Lelito and the returning interior Pro Bowl duo Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans should be able to effectively handle the Falcons pass rush. The secondary can only hold receivers for so long. However, the new Zone Blocking Scheme will be important to establish early, so there will be a trade-off for the Saints’ coaching staff come gameday.
The Falcons will likely attack the Saints weaker run defense early. The Saints are likely better than their 23rd ranking last year, but it’s still the less threatening of the two when put up against their pass defense. If that works, they may get a bit bolder in the second half and implement more play action. The Saints defense actually limited Steven Jackson when they faced him last year with the exception of one big run in their first meeting, and it will be interesting to see if Atlanta tries to change the pace more with Davonte Freeman.
What to expect: Atlanta will likely come out of the gate with a bit more intensity than the Saints. New Orleans will have to feel out the new look Falcons a bit in order to get a vibe, and the Saints are a very similar team to the one that Falcons saw twice last season. There are a lot more new faces wearing black & red than there will be wearing black & gold. The Falcons also have their personnel in line for the 3-4, something that they didn’t have last season. However, the Saints are still more talented overall than the Falcons. There’s a reason that they didn’t change a whole lot: There wasn’t much to address. Look for a close game (in which Atlanta may hold the lead at halftime due to the aforementioned slower start), that’s simply the nature of NFC South matchups, but the Saints should be able to withstand the Falcons in Week 1 and come out on top.
Final Score Prediction: 24-17 Saints
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