The New Orleans Saints take on their biggest rival, the Atlanta Falcons, in a marquee battle tonight on NFL's Thursday Night Football. This will be the 97th meeting between one of the league's most underrated rivalries.
New Orleans has won 8 of their last 9 games due to superior performance by their offensive line, and bringing increased pressure against the opposing quarterback, and their hopes in this game will certainly be the same. Both teams, however, have as much talent at the skill positions as any team in the league, often resulting in shootouts.
Let's have a look at how these two squads stack up against each other at some of the "glamour positions" in this extremely important match up for both teams.
SAINTS WIDE RECEIVERS vs. FALCONS SECONDARY
New Orleans has the 3rd ranked passing attack in the league, and Drew Brees has completed 71.5% of his passes for 3,298 yards with 17 touchdowns and only 5 interceptions. The Saints passing attack is not as explosive as it's been in the past, but second year wideout Michael Thomas has established himself as one of the better possession receivers in the league. Thomas has 75 catches for 875 yards to lead the team, and has scored 3 touchdowns.
When the New Orleans passing game has struggled, most notably in losses to the Vikings and the Rams, one major reason has been because the Saints receivers have been unable to get consistent separation from defensive backs, enabling defensive pressure to hurry Brees. Ted Ginn Jr. has had a solid season with New Orleans, catching 44 passes for 668 yards and 3 scores, and Brandon Coleman has shown good ability to find the open spots in zone coverage down the field and near the goal line. The team's most surprising disappointment of the season has been Willie Snead, who has just 5 receptions for 63 yards this year. Snead was a trusted target of Brees in big situations the previous two years, and his return to form down the stretch could be a huge boost to this passing attack.
The Falcons rank 6th in pass defense this year, giving up just 208 yards per game, but only have 3 interceptions on the year. Cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford are two of the more underrated corners in the game, and could have some intriguing one-on-one battles with Thomas. Keanu Neal has outstanding range at free safety, and must be forced to respect a down the field threat to open up patterns underneath. Thomas will likely make plays, he is near impossible to stop on slant routes, and had 17 catches for 227 yards and 2 touchdowns in the two games against Atlanta last year. Coleman and Snead each had some success against Falcons coverages last season as well, and along with Ginn will need to gain fast separation in the Atlanta secondary.
MARK INGRAM/ALVIN KAMARA vs FALCONS LINEBACKERS
Ingram and Kamara have been the Saints Dynamic Duo all season, combining for 49% of the 2nd ranked Saints total offensive production and helping New Orleans rank 3rd in the league in rushing. Ingram is 4th in the league in rushing, with 922 yards and 9 touchdowns while averaging 5.1 yards per carry, and also providing a solid threat in the passing game with 42 receptions. Super-rookie Kamara has added 606 yards rushing and 7 ground scores while averaging an astounding 7 yards per carry. He also ranks second among Saints receivers with 60 receptions, for 614 yards and 4 more touchdowns.
The Falcons have a ton of speed at the linebacking position. Deion Jones is a sideline-sideline playmaker from the middle that gave the Saints offense fits a year ago, while Vic Beasley began to live up to his 1st round billing in 2016, though his production is down this season. De'vondre Campbell is a solid cover man that is 3rd on the team in tackles. Ingram has been hobbled all week with a toe injury, and is a question mark to play. Kamara seems more than capable of taking on the every down load, but Ingram's potential absence in the lineup could severly limit a New Orleans offense that will already be without left guard Andrus Peat for this game. Ingram rushed for 180 yards and averaged over 5 yards per carry in two meetings against the Falcons last year
SAINTS LINEBACKER/SAFETIES vs FALCONS RUNNING BACKS DEVONTA FREEMAN/TEVIN COLEMAN
Freeman and Coleman did to defenses last year what Ingram and Kamara are doing this year, and they absolutely destroyed the Saints a season ago. Freeman rushed for 248 yards against New Orleans last year, including a 75-yd touchdown burst, and caught 10 passes for 131 yards and another score. Coleman torched the Saints defense added 148 all-purpose yards and 4 touchdowns. Both backs have been limited by nagging injuries this season, but each have rushed for over 500 yards and seem to be back to full form.
They will again be a major threat to a much improved Saints defense that has still struggled against running backs in space this year. Linebacker Craig Robertson is again a team leader, and will take on a primary role in trying to contain the Atlanta backs. New Orleans added A.J. Klein this offseason to give the team some added athleticism at the position, but Saints safeties Vonn Bell and Kenny Vaccaro have played the roles of hybrid linebackers at times, and have been as active as any two in the league.
MARSHON LATTIMORE/KEN CRAWLEY/P.J. WILLIAMS vs. JULIO JONES/MOHAMED SANU
Lattimore has missed all but a few snaps of the last 3 games with an ankle injury, is back to form, adjusting the entire defensive game planning approach. The 11th overall draft pick has quickly become one of the top shutdown cornerbacks in the league, virtually shutting out some All-Pro wideouts. He is questionable for this game, but has returned to practice this week. If he is back to form, his match up with the Falcons Julio Jones will be one of the best the league has seen this year. Jones is unquestionably one of the top receivers in the game, and has 68 catches for 1,063 yards and 3 touchdowns so far this season. He is a threat to every level of a defense, and is capable of taking over a game. Sanu and Taylor Gabriel are a capable complimentary receivers, able to make a defense for paying too little attention. They have a combined 77 catches for 827 yards and five scores. Saints cornerbacks Ken Crawley and P.J. Williams have each been slowed by injury in recent weeks, but both look to be a go for this game. Crawley in particular has had a much improved second season, and has helped the Saints defense vault to a near top 10 ranking. The cornerbacks ability to control Jones and the Atlanta receivers will allow the New Orleans defense to bring extra rushers against Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, as well as extra defenders against the run.
The health of the Saints cornerbacks, particulary Lattimore, may be the biggest key to this game, but certainly to the overall success of the New Orleans defense. Brees has had some of his biggest games in prime time against Atlanta, and even if Ingram is hobbled, the Falcons may not be able to keep pace with Thomas and Kamara, particularly if the Saints run an up-tempo attack. New Orleans always seems to have one of their secondary weapons step up in a big way against Atlanta, so watch for a big performance from Ginn, Coleman, or Snead in the passing game. The Falcons have just a 3-3 record in their brand new stadium this year, and have been inconsistent most of the year. New Orleans just appears to be a far more complete team on both sides of the ball.
Saints 35 Falcons 27
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