The New Orleans Saints host their hated division rival, the Atlanta Falcons, in the nightcap portion of NFL's Thanksgiving football this Thursday night. The 9-1 Saints come into the game with a nine game winning streak, and sitting on top of the NFC South. Atlanta has lost two straight games, and comes in with a 4-6 record, seemingly clinging to their playoff lives. New Orleans has the league's best all-around offense, leading the NFL in points per game (37.8), and third in total yardage averaging 427 yards per game. The Falcons defense ranks 29th in the league both in total yardage given up (405/game) and points per game (27.6). Despite what looks to be a mismatch on paper, these two division rivals know each other well, and anyone who follows this rivalry knows that things rarely go according to statistical trends. Let's have a look at how this top ranked New Orleans offense matches up against the struggling Atlanta defense.
SAINTS PASS OFFENSE VS. FALCONS PASS DEFENSE
Saints quarterback Drew Brees has averaged 310 yards passing against Atlanta while with New Orleans. In a week three defeat of their rivals, Brees threw for 396 yards and three touchdowns, while rushing for two more scores. The Saints have the league's 6th best passing attack, averaging nearly 296 yards per game, and Brees is as proficient as ever. He's completed an incredible 77% of his passes, and has thrown 25 touchdown passes with only one interception. The Saints offensive line continues to be an impenetrable wall in front of their veteran legend, allowing only nine sacks for the season and none at all in the last four games. Michael Thomas became the first New Orleans wide receiver to eclipse the 1,000 yard barrier in his first three years, and continues to re-write the team's record books. Thomas has caught 8 touchdowns, and has 82 receptions for 1,042 yards, both second best in the league. The Saints second leading receiver is running back Alvin Kamara, who is among the league's top pass receivers at the position with 56 catches for 510 yards and 4 scores. Thomas and Kamara have been targeted 163 times, 91 and 72 respectively, of the team's 350 pass attempts. Veteran tight end Benjamin Watson (27 catches, 293 yards, 2 touchdowns) and rookie wideout Tre'Quan Smith (22-371, 4) are next with 34 targets apiece, but despite the dropoff the team has been getting more weapons involved recently. Smith is coming off of his second 100yd. receiving game of the season, a 10 catch, 157 yard output in last week's win over the Philadelphia Eagles. He has shown a good grasp of the Saints offense over the last month, and has good athletic skills and great ability to adjust to the ball in coverage. Undrafted rookie Keith Kirkwood has five catches for 78 yards over the last two games, his first two as an active pro, and is a big-bodied target with good athleticism. Watson is one of the team's veteran leaders, and has the trust of his quarterback in key situations. Receiver Austin Carr, and tight ends Josh Hill and Dan Arnold have played bigger roles as pass catchers recently, allowing Brees more weapons in which to spread the ball.
Atlanta ranks 29th in pass defense, giving up 284 yards per game through the air. Early season ending injuries to safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen have thinned a secondary already prone to the big play. Defensive back Damontae Kazee has five of the Falcons eight interceptions this year, but may be limited with a shoulder injury. Up front, Atlanta possesses good speed on the edge and bulk in the middle to pressure quarterbacks, but have failed to do so consistently. The Falcons have 19 sacks on the season, and have been unable to generate a rush to take the pressure off of their secondary. Cornerbacks Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford, and rookie Isaiah Oliver have given up big plays in one on one match ups, and may struggle against the productive New Orleans passing attack without pressure up front. Atlanta's linebackers have struggled mightily against opposing backs without All-Pro Deion Jones in the lineup. Jones, who has been out since week two with a foot injury, may return for this rivalry game. Jones has been a Saints killer throughout his short career. In four games against New Orleans, he has 38 tackles, five for loss, 3 interceptions, and one touchdown.
~ Matchup to Watch: OT's Jermon Bushrod/Ryan Ramczyk vs. DE's Vic Beasley/Takkarist McKinley ~
The Saints will still be without injured left tackle Terron Armstead (pectoral), and will again be replaced by twelve year vet Bushrod, who has played well over the last two games. Bushrod is protecting Brees' blindside, and is bookended by Ramczyk, already one of the best right tackles in the league in just his second season. They will be challenged by a Falcon defense with alot of speed on the edge. Ends Takkarist McKinley (6 sacks), Vic Beasley (3 sacks), and Brooks Reed can get into the offensive backfield fast and create havoc. Ramczyk and Bushrod will be left in one on one situations often with the Atlanta edge, because the Saints interior must contain the pass rushing talents of Grady Jarrett and Jack Crawford inside. The New Orleans backs and wideouts have often produced well against the Atlanta secondary, but Brees must be given the time to go through his progressions and allow his talented targets to get open.
SAINTS RUN OFFENSE VS. FALCONS RUN DEFENSE
New Orleans has racked up over 140 yards rushing in each of the last three games, now averaging 131 yards per game on the ground, and raising their league ranking to number six. Mark Ingram has two consecutive games of over 100 yards rushing, and now has 388 yards and 4 touchdowns after missing the first four games. Kamara is still the Saints leading rusher, picking up 617 yards and 11 scores on the ground while averaging 4.5 yards per carry. While the New Orleans tackles have set the edge well for their dynamic runners to bounce outside, it's the interior of the Saints line that bulldozes the way to ground success. Guards Andrus Peat, Larry Warford, and center Max Unger are dominating defenses at the point of attack and pushing into the second level, enabling the Saints to average 4.2 yards per rush.
The Falcons 21st in the league at stopping the run, surrendering 121 yards per game. The key to their run defense depends on the success of their defensive tackles. Grady Jarrett, Deadrin Senat, and Jack Crawford, but they too often have been stonewalled at the line and moved off their spot. The open holes have given opposing linemen the ability to neutralize the undersized Atlanta linebackers, and the results have been big runs against them in the open field. De'Vondre Campbell and Duke Riley lead the team in tackles, but have often been out of position and outmatched by opposing backs. Atlanta often drops defensive back Brian Poole, one of their most versatile defenders, into the tackle box to help against the run, but the Falcons defense has often been susceptible to play action passes.
~ Matchup to Watch: Alvin Kamara/Mark Ingram vs. Falcons LB's ~
Neither Ingram nor Jones were in the lineup when these teams played in week three. Ingram has just one 100-yd. rushing game in twelve appearances against them, but it came last year, and he has scored 9 career touchdowns against them. Kamara was contained in two games against Atlanta last year, but exploded for 190 total yards in their game earlier this season, including 124 receiving yards on 15 receptions.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR:
The Saints defeated the Falcons in Atlanta during a week three 43-37 overtime shootout. Thomas had 10 catches for 129 yards in that game, his third 100-yd. receiving game in five match ups with the Falcons. Atlanta will most likely try to match up Trufant on the Saints leading receiver whenever possible, leaving opportunities for Smith, Kirkwood, or perhaps Brandon Marshall in the secondary. Atlanta also had a difficult time with Ben Watson in that first game, who wound up with five catches for 71 yards. The Saints offense took over the game late when these two last met, scoring 20 points while rolling up 268 yards and 21 first downs in the 4th quarter and overtime alone. For the game, they racked up 534 total yards, including 143 on the ground, and 32 first downs. Brees' inspirational performance in bringing his team back in that week three victory was a microcosm of his career against the Falcons. The only time Atlanta has been able to beat Brees' Saints is when they've been able to get pressure on him and create turnovers. Deion Jones' potential return to the Falcons lineup is vital to their defensive success, and probably their only real hope to control Ingram or Kamara. New Orleans still appears to have a significant talent advantage at the skill positions, meaning that once again their only chance will be to heavily pressure the Saints backfield. A tall order, even without Armstead, and one that every defense thus far has failed to do in the 2018 season.
Which is the most important match up for the Saints offense against Atlanta?
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Kamara/Ingram vs. Falcons LB's
Michael Thomas vs. Desmond Trufant
Bushrod/Ramczyk vs. Beasley/McKinley
Peat/Unger/Warford vs. Jarrett/Crawford/Senat
Smith/Kirkwood vs. Alford/Oliver
Saints TE's vs. Falcons safeties