The New Orleans Saints defense rebounded from an abysmal performance in week one, helping the team pull out a victory against Cleveland last week despite offensive struggles. After evening their record at 1-1, the Saints travel to face bitter rival Atlanta, also with a 1-1 record. New Orleans has struggled to stop the Falcons from moving the ball in recent years, but when the Saints have prevailed it has been due to the ability to cause turnovers. The Saints have seen alot of ups and downs in the season's first two games, but let's have a look at how this Jekyll and Hyde unit matches up against a longtime foe.
SAINTS PASS DEFENSE vs. FALCONS PASS OFFENSE
The New Orleans defense is surrendering 11.4 yards per pass attempt, among the worst in the league, and rank 29th in the league defending the pass. They did rebound a bit last week against Cleveland, sacking Browns quarterback Tyrod Taylor three times and intercepting him once. Still, coverage breakdowns in the secondary late in the fourth quarter put Cleveland in a position to win or tie the game on two separate occasions. The team's defensive line played well against Cleveland last week, hurrying Taylor on several occasions. Cameron Jordan recorded his first two sacks of the year, and Sheldon Rankins produced good pressure from his defensive tackle position while getting a sack of his own. Both Alex Okafor and rookie first round pick Marcus Davenport had solid games opposite Jordan, and all three are capable of putting quick pressure on the pass pocket from the edge. The team's secondary is still giving up explosive plays down the field, a disturbing trend that they mostly avoided last season. Marcus Williams nabbed the team's first interception of the year last week, after ranking third in the league with 20 pickoffs a year ago, but the team's safeties in general are struggling in deep coverage. Cornerbacks Ken Crawley and Patrick Robinson have been victimized down the field, and the entire secondary has been vulnerable out of the slot. Marshon Lattimore played better in his match ups with Browns wideout Jarvis Landry after getting torched by Tampa Bay's Mike Evans the previous week, holding Landry to just 69 yards on five catches. The Saints defense continues to struggle with athletic tight ends down the middle, but the team's linebackers have reacted well to opposing backs out of the backfield. They will face a stiff test this week, however, with Atlanta's Tevin Coleman coming out of the backfield.
The Falcons enter the game ranked just 16th in the league throwing the football, but are led by quarterback Matt Ryan, the 2016 NFL MVP. Ryan has gotten off to a slow start this year, completing 62% of his passes for 523 yards and 2 touchdowns with 2 interceptions. This after a 2017 where he struggled with consistency. Ryan's favorite target is one of the best in the NFL, Julio Jones. The perennial pro bowler has 15 catches for 243 yards thus far this season, but has yet to find his way into the end zone. One of the league's more underrated wideouts is Mohamed Sanu. Although he has just six catches on the year so far, he has had big outputs against the Saints in the past. Atlanta used a first round pick on wide receiver Calvin Ridley from Alabama to add to their staple of weapons. Ridley was held without a catch in week one, but had four for 64 yards and a long touchdown last week against the Panthers. Austin Hooper is coming into his own as an effective tight end. The 2016 3rd round pick has eight catches and a score so far, and can create the sort of problems that O.J. Howard and David Njoku have for New Orleans the previous two games. The Atlanta offensive line protected their passer better in last week's win over Carolina, not allowing a sack after giving up four takedowns in their opening night loss to Philadelphia. Center Alex Mack is among the best in the game, but the Falcons will be without left guard Andy Levitre, who was placed on injured reserve earlier this week, and left tackle Jake Matthews can struggle against athletic edge rushers. The right side of the Atlanta line is an even bigger question mark, with guard Brandon Fusco and tackle Ryan Schraeder looking like they could be overmatched against the Saints talented front line.
~ Matchup to watch: Marshon Lattimore vs. Julio Jones ~
Another marquee match up for the second year New Orleans cornerback and last year's defensive rookie of the year. Lattimore has gotten off to a slow start this season, failing to contain Tampa's Mike Evans in the opener, but tightened up on Jarvis Landry last week. Jones caught a combined twelve passes for 247 yards against the Saints in two meetings last season, and has tormented New Orleans defensive backs since 2011. Like Michael Thomas, the Saints star wideout, it is next to impossible to shut down Jones. If Lattimore can contain the Falcons All-Pro, then a struggling secondary will be able to focus coverages on Sanu, Ridley, and the other Atlanta receiving weapons.
SAINTS RUN DEFENSE vs. FALCONS RUN OFFENSE
New Orleans has the league's 17th ranked rush defense, but has limited their first two opponents to just 3.4 yards per rush, 4th best mark in the league. Jordan and Okafor are outstanding run defenders from their end position, and rookie Davenport has been solid against the rush. Defensive tackle Tyeler Davison will miss his second consecutive game with injury. Rankins controlled the inside against the Browns, and is becoming consistently difficult for opposing blockers to contain. He and David Onyemata's ability to stonewall inside run attempts and disrupt the opponent's backfield is vital to the defensive success, and allows the Saints linebackers to flow to the ball more freely. Demario Davis leads the team in tackles, followed closely by A.J. Klein. Manti Te'o rounds out the Saints typical starters at the second level, although Te'o's status for this game is in question with a knee injury. Second year Alex Anzalone and veteran Craig Robertson would be next up if Te'o can't go, and the New Orleans defensive backs are very aggressive run defenders.
The Falcons will likely be without leading rusher Devonta Freeman for this game, missing his second straight with a knee injury. Speedy Tevin Coleman will get the bulk of the carries, and is coming off a 100-yd. rushing performance against the Panthers. Coleman is averaging five yards per rush for the Falcons 8th ranked running attack, but the Devonta/Tevin combination has given the New Orleans defense nightmares in multiple matchups. Rookie fourth round pick Ito Smith has stepped up in Freeman's absence to have 46 yards on 9 carries.
~ Matchup to watch: Saints LB's vs. Tevin Coleman/Ito Smith ~
Demario Davis was brought in as a free agent to upgrade the New Orleans athleticism at linebacker, and combat precisely the type of skillset that the Falcons have out of the backfield. Freeman's probable absence is big, but Coleman has had some huge successes against the Saints in recent seasons, and Smith is showing himself to be a threat in the open field. Alex Anzalone, a good athlete in his own right, did not play in either game against Atlanta last season, and should also play a big role if New Orleans hopes to contain these explosive backs.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan has had some big yardage output against New Orleans throughout his career. When the Saints have been successful against him, it's been when they have been able to get heavy pressure and cause turnovers. Despite splitting their games last year, Atlanta was held to an average of under 17 points. New Orleans intercepted Ryan 3 times in their first match up, and sacked him 5 times while getting another pick in the rematch. The Saints secondary has had it's struggles early this season, but the talent along the back end is undeniable. They also look to have an edge in talent up front, and Cam Jordan has had some big games against Atlanta throughout his career. The team's linebackers will be tested, but the Saints need to control the Falcons running attack, and force them to be one dimensional. Jones, Ridley, and Sanu will be difficult to shut down, but New Orleans will look to aggressively pressure Ryan often, hoping that the playmakers in the secondary can create turnovers to pull out a key road win.
What is the Saints biggest defensive key against Atlanta?
This poll is closed
Lattimore vs. Julio
Crawley/Robinson vs. Sanu/Ridley
Saints LB's vs. Tevin/Ito
Better safety play
Cam/Okafor/Davenport vs. Falcons O-line