The New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons face off this Thursday night in New Orleans to cap off an NFL Thanksgiving triple header. These two bitter rivals have met once already this year, a week three 43-37 overtime shootout won by the Saints in Atlanta. High scoring affairs are nothing new in this emotional rivalry, and this contest may provide yet another. The Falcons offense has produced 403 yards per game, ranking 6th in the NFL, and they average over 26 points per outing to rank ninth. They take on a New Orleans defense that ranks 16th in total yardage (358 yards/game) and gives up an average of 24 points per game. The 4-6 Falcons will face a different Saints defense than the one they saw eight weeks ago, a team they must likely beat to keep their fading playoff chances alive. The 9-1 Saints have not lost since week 1, and now looks to hasten their most bitter rival into an early offseason. Today, we have a look at how well New Orleans matches up against Atlanta's potentially explosive offense.
SAINTS PASS DEFENSE vs. FALCONS PASS OFFENSE
The Saints early season struggles against the pass are well-documented, but the team has shown improvement in recent weeks. New Orleans still ranks just 27th in pass defense, giving up an average of 280 yards per game, but held Philadelphia and Cincinnati to under 160 yards through the air in the last two games. The Saints secondary is also starting to create big plays on the back end, something they were unable to do in the season's first month. They have just 9 interceptions on the year, but 7 in the last four games, including one returned for a touchdown. Communication has improved greatly after early season breakdowns that led to big plays. Cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Eli Apple have combined to form a solid coverage duo, and P.J. Williams has made numerous big plays after being one of the most vulnerable spots of the defense early. Safety Marcus Williams has shown better recognition and has given his cornerbacks the confidence of good deep coverage support, while the versatile Vonn Bell is quietly having a good season. Bell has been one of the reasons why the team has been able to control opposing tight ends, along with outstanding play from their linebackers. Demario Davis, Alex Anzalone, and A.J. Klein have formed perhaps the best linebacking unit New Orleans has had in decades. All three are capable of dropping effectively into zone or matching up in man coverage. They have proven to be disruptive pass rushers as well, particularly Anzalone over the past few games. The Saints generate most of their quarterback pressures from their talented defensive line however, and 21 of the team's 24 sacks are from the men up front. End Cameron Jordan and tackle Sheldon Rankins lead the team with 6 sacks apiece, and both are playing at an All-Pro level, creating disruption on a weekly basis. Alex Okafor has added 3 sacks, and is playing back at the high level he was last season before being sidelined by an Achilles injury. Rookie first round pick Marcus Davenport (2 sacks) has returned to practice on a limited basis after missing the last four games with a foot injury, and could even return for this game. New Orleans has gotten nice push from their defensive tackles other than Rankins as well, and could be trouble for an Atlanta offensive line that has had protection issues.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has been sacked 27 times, and are without starting guards Andy Levitre and Brandon Fusco, who are on injured reserve. Guards Ben Garland, Wes Schweitzer, and center Alex Mack must now contend with a fierce Saints interior rush. Ryan has averaged around 315 yards per game for the Falcons 3rd ranked passing attack, and has thrown for 22 scores with just 4 interceptions. Receiver Julio Jones continues a high level of play, leading the NFL with 1,158 yards on 73 catches and 3 touchdowns, notching a score in the last three games. Rookie wideout Calvin Ridley has shown why Atlanta invested a 1st round pick in him, and has 39 catches for 542 yards and a team high 7 touchdowns. Mohamed Sanu is one of the better third wideouts in the league, and has brought in 38 passes for 472 yards and 3 touchdowns. Tight end Austin Hooper has become a bigger part of the offense, with 50 catches, 442 yards and three scores. The Falcons have often used their backs effectively, led by the versatile Tevin Coleman, who has caught 26 balls for 251 yards and 4 touchdowns.
~ Matchup to Watch: Marshon Lattimore/Eli Apple/P.J. Williams vs. Julio Jones/Calvin Ridley/Mohamed Sanu ~
Apple was not yet with the team when these teams last met, and the New Orleans secondary struggled. Ridley had a performance that made him look like a Hall of Famer when these teams met in late September, catching 7 passes for 146 yards and 3 touchdowns. P.J. Williams and the since-benched Ken Crawley were most victimized in coverage by Ridley during that game. When the Saints switched Lattimore onto Ridley in the 3rd quarter, the Falcons still went after Williams and Crawley, primarily with Julio Jones, who finished the day with five catches for 96 yards. Jones has had at least 90 yards receiving in nine of his fourteen meetings with the Saints, but his physical battles with Lattimore are becoming legendary.
SAINTS RUN DEFENSE vs. FALCONS RUN OFFENSE
New Orleans currently ranks 2nd in run defense, surrendering only 78 yards per game and just 3.7 per rush. Ends Jordan and Okafor are pushing offensive tackles inside for containment, while defensive tackles Rankins, Taylor Stallworth, and Tyeler Davison are penetrating into offensive backfields at the snap. The team's linebackers are extremely physical and active as well, a combination that often causes the defense to stop opposing running games dead in their tracks. Demario Davis leads the Saints in tackles with a whopping 70, and the entire unit is getting multiple tackles for loss each game. The defense's ability to shut down the run has made a number of opponents one-dimensional, giving their pass rush an extra advantage.
Atlanta has struggled to run the ball without injured star Devonta Freeman, averaging only 89 yards per game and ranking 29th. Tevin Coleman is their rushing leader, with 500 yards on 114 carries, but only scoring twice. Rookie Ito Smith has become a threat near the goal line, leading the team with four scores, but has just 199 yards rushing for the year. Atlanta's line has struggled to open up holes for it's runners, but the Falcons have also been quick to abandon the run. Only five teams have less than their 218 rushing attempts on the year. They have just 8 rushing touchdowns on the year, causing them to be one dimensional in some key red zone situations this season.
~ Matchup to Watch: Demario Davis/Alex Anzalone/A.J. Klein vs. Tevin Coleman/Ito Smith ~
Atlanta had only 48 yards rushing and just 2.2 yards per attempt when these teams last met. The Falcons have been unable to establish any offensive balance without Freeman in the lineup, but they need Coleman and Smith to be a threat to alleviate a bit of the pressure off Ryan. Both backs can be dangerous in the passing game, but will be challenged athletically by Davis, Anzalone, and Klein, who have kept some of the league's most versatile backs under wraps.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR:
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan torched the New Orleans secondary for 376 yards and five touchdowns during their last meeting. He's averaged 299 yards passing in 20 games against the Saints, but has just an 8-12 record against them. Despite Ryan's yardage totals, the Saints have had success when they've been able to pressure the Atlanta quarterback. Cam Jordan in particular has been like Ryan's punishing shadow at times, and looks to have a significant edge against Atlanta right tackle Ryan Schraeder . In 15 games against the Falcons, Jordan has 10 sacks, 25 quarterback hits, and 49 total tackles. The Saints will also use Davis and Anzalone on blitzes, expecting to hit Ryan often, and knowing that successful pressure forces the Atlanta quarterback into big mistakes. The Falcons will undoubtedly again target P.J. Williams when he's on the field, but the Saints expect that his improved play, the addition of Apple, and the skill of Lattimore can hold up in coverage long enough for the pressure up front to be the difference maker.
What will be the key defensive match up for the Saints to stop the Falcons?
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Cam Jordan/Alex Okafor vs. Ryan Schraeder/Jake Matthews
Sheldon Rankins/Tyeler Davison/Taylor Stallworth vs. Ben Garland/Alex Mack/Wes Schweitzer
Marshon Lattimore/Eli Apple/P.J. Williams vs. Julio Jones/Calvin Ridley/Mohamed Sanu
Demario Davis/Alex Anzalone/A.J. Klein vs. Tevin Coleman/Ito Smith