Over the years, there have been many shootouts between the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons, two of the most bitter rivals in the NFL. High yardage output has been particularly true since the arrival of coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees to New Orleans in 2006. New Orleans has averaged nearly 26 points per game against the Falcons since Brees' arrival. The future Hall of Fame quarterback has had some of his best career games against their longtime foe, and is off to a fast start in 2018. Both Atlanta and New Orleans enter this weekend's game with 1-1 records, each winning last week after opening game losses. The Falcons entered the season with one of the NFL's fastest defenses, but have been plagued by injury early on. The Saints meanwhile, after having one of the league's most balanced offensive attacks in 2017, have been extremely one-dimensional during the suspension of Pro Bowl running back Mark Ingram. Today, we have a look at how the New Orleans offense may have success against the defense of their arch rival.
SAINTS PASS OFFENSE vs. FALCONS PASS DEFENSE
New Orleans has the league's 4th ranked passing offense. Quarterback Drew Brees cooled off a bit in the team's second game against the Cleveland Browns, completing 74% of his passes for 243 yards after completing 82% of his passes in a 439 yard performance on opening week against Tampa Bay. Brees uncharacteristically missed on a couple of open touchdown opportunities against the Browns that would have made the margin of victory wider, but for the most part he is as accurate as he's ever been. A far bigger concern for the New Orleans offense is the fact that their quarterback isn't getting the support from the team's complimentary targets that he had been accustomed to prior to last season. Michael Thomas (28 receptions) and Alvin Kamara (15 receptions) have accounted for an astounding 66% of Brees' completions. Ted Ginn Jr. has caught six passes for 123 yards and a score, missing on a couple of other big plays, continues to show that he can be a big play threat. Rookie third round pick Tre'quan Smith looked like a potential star during the preseason, but has just one catch thus far, while free agent acquisition Cameron Meredith has been inactive for both of the team's opening games. Veteran tight end Benjamin Watson has caught seven passes, and does have the trust of his quarterback, but the 37-yr. old is no longer a consistent threat down the field. Thomas' 28 catches in the first two games are an NFL record, and he has tortured defenses for 269 yards and 3 touchdowns. He has had two critical fumbles so far this season, but ball security has never been an issue with the third year wideout, and he has certainly become one of the league's most consistent weapons. The other player that keeps opposing defensive coaches up at night is Kamara, who is one of the most versatile weapons in the NFL. The reigning offensive rookie of the year already has one 100-yd. receiving game to his credit, and combines with Thomas to give New Orleans perhaps the most feared duo in the league. The excessive defensive focus on the two Saints stars could limit their production at times, as it did in moments against Cleveland, if nobody else on the New Orleans offense steps up to provide a legitimate threat. The Saints offensive line struggled a bit to protect Brees against a solid Browns pass rush, sacking him three times. The line is one of the better in the league, but the lack of a running game is allowing defensive fronts to generate a more focused pass rush. Left guard Andrus Peat has been nicked up by injury, and both he and left tackle Terron Armstead were limited in practice throughout the week, but look to be good to play on Sunday. Tackles Ryan Ramczyk and Armstead must be able to contain the speed that Atlanta has on the edge, and the interior of Peat, Larry Warford, and center Max Unger must provide a clean pocket for Brees to step up and deliver accurate strikes down the field.
The Falcons rank 10th in defending the pass, but have been ravaged by injuries and gave up up over 300 yards through the air against Cam Newton and the Panthers last week. Atlanta had already lost safety Keanu Neal for the season in their opening night loss to Philadelphia, and had to place star linebacker Deion Jones on injured reserve. This week's news that pass rusher Takkarist McKinley along reserves Derrick Shelby and Corey Nelson will be out for this game as well makes their defense much thinner and more vulnerable. Defensive end Vic Beasley is still a dangerous pass rusher, and the Falcons do a good job of pressuring the passer from the defensive tackle position. The loss of Deion Jones at linebacker is crippling. He is quickly becoming one of the league's better linebackers, and has made a number of gamechanging plays against the Saints in four meetings. Taking Jones' place in the middle is Foyesade Oluokon, but he will be flanked by two athletic and talented players in Duke Riley and De'Vondre Campbell on the outside. Cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford will take on the primary responsibility of trying to contain Thomas and the other New Orleans receivers, along with Brian Poole and rookie Isaiah Oliver. Thomas has averaged almost 8 catches for nearly 118 yards and 3 touchdowns in his four career meetings against the Falcons, including 10 grabs for 117 yards and a touchdown in their first match up last year. Neal is a big loss on the back end, but safeties Ricardo Allen and Damontae Kazee will try to keep Brees and company from making big plays over the top.
~ Matchup to watch: Alvin Kamara vs. Falcons LB's Duke Riley/De'Vondre Campbell/Foyesade Oluokon ~
Atlanta's defense managed to limit Kamara's impact in both meetings last season. He had only four touches for 27 yards in their first game, before leaving with a concussion during a 20-17 loss in Atlanta. During the rematch in New Orleans, Kamara had 19 touches, but totaled just 90 yards. Deion Jones' speed was the neutralizing factor, but the responsibility will now fall to Riley and Campbell. They weren't able to keep pace with Carolina's all-purpose threat Christian McCaffrey last week, allowing 139 total yards, including 14 catches and 102 receiving. Kamara is even more explosive than McCaffrey, and could be a recipe for disaster for the Atlanta defense.
SAINTS RUSH OFFENSE vs. FALCONS RUSH DEFENSE
Ingram's absence from the lineup has made the Saints completely one-dimensional. As great as Kamara has been as a receiver, he has only gotten 75 yards on the ground and averaged 3.6 per run attempt. He does continue to be a threat near the goal line however, running for two scores and converting two 2-pt. conversions on the ground. New Orleans as a team has averaged only 2.9 yards per rush, and ranks dead last in the league in rushing yardage. Reserve backs Jonathan Williams and Mike Gillislee have contributed absolutely nothing to the offense, but the usually terrific Saints offensive line has struggled to open holes for anyone running the football.
Atlanta has struggled to stop the run, ranking 24th, and surrendering over five yards per carry. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett helped form a stout interior that contributed to a 9th rank against the run last season, but he along with Terrell McClain and rookie Deadrin Senat have not been able to hold up at the point of attack. The result has been opposing linemen able to get to the Falcons undersized linebackers, especially troubling with the absence of Jones. Atlanta's defensive ends best attributes are as pass rushers, and the team's safeties have struggled in run support without Neal.
~ Matchup to watch: OL Andrus Peat/Max Unger/Larry Warford vs. DT's Jarrett/McClain/Senat
Jarrett can be a pass rushing force from his defensive tackle position, but is also a key to attacking the Atlanta defense on the ground. If Jarrett and the rest of the Atlanta interior can be controlled, it allows Brees a clean pocket to operate. It also gives Saints tackles Ramczyk and Armstead an opportunity to control the Atlanta edge in the running game, perhaps allowing the team to generate rushing yards on the outside.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
The Saints best hope for offensive success until Ingram's return lie on the abilities of Brees and his playmakers in the passing game, along with stout pass protection up front. Thomas presents a mammoth challenge to all defensive backs, and Kamara's skills stretch a defense to it's breaking point. New Orleans will need one of their other receivers to step up and alleviate some of the pressure on Kamara and Thomas to produce big numbers. Atlanta is vulnerable in the middle of the field with the injuries to Jones and Neal, so expect the Saints to attack down the center. Perhaps by getting Tre'quan Smith, Austin Carr or Cameron Meredith more heavily involved in the game plan. New Orleans could try to generate a running game by using Kamara more off tackle and around the edge, rather than attacking between the guards. The Saints must convert their 3rd down chances, they are just 33.3% in that department this season, but are facing an Atlanta defense who is allowing opponents to convert 48% of their 3rd down opportunities. Brees needs just 14 completions to move into first place on the NFL's all-time completion list. He could get that before halftime in this one against an injury depleted rival, and seems destined for another huge game if the Saints are to win this key divisional battle.
What is the biggest offensive key for New Orleans success against the Falcons?
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Michael Thomas vs. Desmond Trufant/Robert Alford
Alvin Kamara vs. Atlanta LB's
Saints guards/center vs. Grady Jarrett
Terron Armstead/Ryan Ramczyk vs. Vic Beasley
Tre'quan Smith, Cameron Meredith, Austin Carr, Ted Ginn, or Ben Watson providing an additional offensive threat