One of the best rivalries in the NFL takes center stage tonight, as the Atlanta Falcons (5-0) travel to the Big Easy to face the New Orleans Saints (1-4). While the Saints are slowly fading into the "jockeying for high a draft pick" abyss, the Falcons are soaring towards an almost-certain postseason run. However, we know that these Saints-Falcons games usually come down to the wire, regardless of records. Will it be the case tonight? We spoke with Dave Choate, editor-in-chief of The Falcholic to learn more about the 2015 Falcons and to preview the game.
1) The Falcons are 5-0 and have found ways to win close games in a fashion that has been somewhat reminiscent of the 2012 Atlanta team that went to the NFC Championship Game. What are the similarities and maybe more importantly, the differences you see between those two teams?
I think the biggest similarity is on offense, where the 2012 Falcons had a solid offensive line, dynamic passing game powered by their top three options, and a fairly strong ground game. The 2015 version doesn't have a Hall of Fame tight end and probably has a better back (Michael Turner was getting old), but the similarities are certainly there.
The biggest differences are on the other side of the ball and in the coaching staff. Mike Smith was a steady hand at the helm for the Falcons in 2012, but these Falcons have a much better defense overall, Kyle Shanahan is a more creative offensive mind than Dirk Koetter, and they're not so reliant on takeaways to win games. Whether that will actually translate to this team going to the NFC Conference Championship Game remains to be seen, though I maintain a little nest of hope in my heart of hearts.
2) Who the hell is Devonta Freeman and where did you guys find him? Tell us a little bit about the former Seminole and how important he has been to the Falcons so far this year.
He was a fourth round pick a year ago, and never really got much of a shake in his rookie season. To be fair to the coaching staff, I don't think he was ready for a full-time role, but in this blocking scheme and with a better line in front of him, Freeman is thriving. He's always been a physical runner, a strong blocking back, and a capable receiver out of the backfield, which makes him an ideal three down back. None of us expected him to be this good, this fast (or just this good, honestly), but we knew he had talent. Shanahan's offense has helped to bring that talent to the forefront.
3) Matt Ryan has six touchdown passes, four interceptions and is 19th in the NFL in QB rating. Has he simply not needed to be awesome yet given how good the defensive play and the running game have been?
He hasn't needed to be awesome yet and really carry the team, which is an excellent change of pace, and I'd say he's still picking up the particulars of Kyle Shanahan's offense. For all that, he also hasn't been great for a full four quarters yet this season, which is a minor concern, given that he's got a ton of weapons, an improved offensive line, and the aforementioned ground game.
I think I've seen enough of Ryan in years past to think he'll rebound and wind up putting up one of the finer seasons of his career, but it's clear he needs to get his timing down and clean up his decision-making a bit before he gets there.
4) If you were Sean Payton, how would you go about attacking the Falcons' defense? On the other side of the ball, if you were Rob Ryan, apart from praying how would you try to slow down the Falcons' offense?
C.J. Spiller and Brandin Cooks, all day! Ideally you're getting a receiving option with legitimate speed in a one-on-one situation with a linebacker, because the Falcons have struggled mightily to stop that all year. Spiller will be as dangerous as hell in this one, if he's utilized well. From there, you just have to maintain a little balance, because Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford have excelled at cornerback, and if Brees has to throw 40-plus times there's a decent chance one or two of those is going to turn into a costly interception.
For Rob Ryan, you've got to take Julio out of the game, or at least be aggressive about trying to jump routes on passes to Julio. Ryan has shown again and again that he will continue to feed Jones even if he's not having a great game, and that's something you can certainly exploit. After that, prioritize stopping Devonta Freeman on the ground, try to force the Falcons to become one-dimensional, and you should be able to slow them down. The execution of that plan is the tough part.
5) Prediction time for you sir: who wins and why?
The Falcons win, 28-24, in one of those classic "I can't believe this sloppy game is so damn close" Falcons-Saints matchups. Atlanta is the more talented team this year and they should be able to make real gains against your defense, but I expect the Saints to find success getting the ball to Spiller and Cooks, and it'll only take a turnover or two in order to keep this one close.
Many thanks to "Falcoholic Dave" for taking the time to speak with us. For more Saints-Falcons coverage with an Atlanta flavor, check out The Falcoholic.