The New Orleans Saints return to action this afternoon after a bye week when they host the hated Atlanta Falcons. The Saints went 5-0 without quarterback Drew Brees while he was out rehabbing a surgically repaired right thumb. They tacked on a sixth straight win when Brees returned on October 27 against the Arizona Cardinals. The 7-1 Saints have averaged 24.4 points and 375 yards per game over the year's first half, despite missing not only Brees but several other major contributors as well. Running back Alvin Kamara and tight end Jared Cook are each Pro Bowl players that have missed the last two games with ankle injuries, while wideout Tre'Quan Smith has missed the last five games with an ankle injury of his own.
Atlanta comes into the Superdome also coming off a bye, but at the opposite end of the spectrum. The Falcons are sporting a 1-7 record and have lost their last six games. Atlanta has one of the worst defenses in the National Football League. They've allowed over 31 points per game, holding their opposition to under 27 points just twice, and have forced a league-low 4 turnovers.
Brees has thrown for at least 275 yards in 20 of his 26 meetings against Atlanta, throwing multiple touchdown passes in 18 of those matchups. This year's showdown has the looks of another productive day for the Saints offense and their legendary quarterback.
SAINTS OFFENSE vs. FALCONS DEFENSE
Brees returned to the lineup in resounding fashion against Arizona, completing 32 of 43 passes for 370 yards and two touchdowns. The Saints passing game has averaged 261 yards per contest to rank 10th in the league. Teddy Bridgewater did a fine job filling in for Brees, throwing for 1,205 yards and 9 touchdowns while winning his five starts, but the Saints are an elite offense with Brees distributing the ball. Whoever the quarterback has been has had a fortress of an offensive line to protect them. Saints quarterbacks have been sacked just 12 times this season, with Brees going down only once. Tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk have shut down some of the league's best edge rushers, often rendering them invisible during a game. The interior line has kept inside pressure to a minimum and left passing lanes open for Brees and Bridgewater.
Wide receiver Michael Thomas leads the NFL with 73 receptions for 875 yards and has scored 4 touchdowns. Thomas is one of the game's most dominant offensive players and continues to be productive in spite of defenses being specifically designed to stop him. Alvin Kamara has the second most receptions on the team (33, for 276 yards), despite missing his last two games. Both he and Jared Cook, who has 15 catches for 168 yards, are on track to return to the lineup. Also back is Tre'quan Smith, who had five receptions for 75 yards in the first two games. Smith's return adds depth to the down field passing game that has gotten little production from it's wideouts other than Thomas and Ted Ginn Jr.
Only four teams have allowed more touchdown passes than the 19 surrendered by the Atlanta defense in 2019. Opposing passers have completed nearly 70% of their throws and averaged 261 yards/game. The Falcons have placed four defensive backs on injured reserve since the start of the year and have allowed six different wideouts at least 85 yards receiving against them. The defense has intercepted just two passes, both by cornerback Desmond Trufant. The leaky secondary has been even more vulnerable thanks to a punchless pass rush that has only 7 sacks, led by 3 from defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. Edge rushers Takkarist McKinley and Vic Beasley have combined for just 2 sacks, but have proven to be challenges for Armstead and Ramczyk in the past. Their ability to pressure Brees will be vital to protect a depleted secondary against Thomas and the Saints receivers. Particularly on 3rd down, where Atlanta gives up 53% conversion to opponents to rank dead last in the league.
The Falcons 21st ranked run defense gives up 118 yards per game on the ground, allowing opposing offenses to maintain balance against them. Atlanta has two fast and talented linebackers in De'Vondre Campbell and Deion Jones, but their defensive front has been unable to win the line of scrimmage to keep them free of blockers.
The Saints have averaged 114 yards rushing against opponents, often taking control of the game with their powerful offensive line as a game progresses. Kamara leads the team with 373 yards, but Latavius Murray has been outstanding while Kamara has been out of the lineup. Murray has 359 yards and 4 touchdowns on the ground so far, including 100-yd. games in back-to-back outings. Brees' return to the lineup has allowed New Orleans to again use utility quarterback Taysom Hill more often in the run game, adding an extra dimension to their balanced offensive attack.
The multi-faceted Saints offense looks to have a distinct advantage against the reeling Falcons defense, but the New Orleans defense may be tested against Atlanta's top ranked passing attack and explosive skill positions on offense.
SAINTS DEFENSE vs. FALCONS OFFENSE
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan is back in the starting lineup after missing their last game with an ankle injury. Ryan has completed nearly 71% of his throws for 2,170 yards with 15 touchdowns and 8 interceptions this season. He has a perennial Pro Bowl wideout at his disposal in Julio Jones, who's caught 50 passes for 712 yards and 4 scores this season. Fellow receiver Calvin Ridley has added 33 catches for 443 yards and 4 touchdowns. Tight end Austin Hooper has been a reliable target as well, adding 52 receptions for 591 yards and five scores. Ryan has averaged 303 yards against the Saints in 21 meetings, throwing 39 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Jones has also historically been productive against in this rivalry, catching 91 passes for 1,403 yards with ten outings of at least 90 yards receiving in 15 career games against the Saints. Ridley has also had success against the New Orleans secondary, catching 15 balls for 239 yards and 4 touchdowns in two games against them last season. One of the biggest keys to this game on either side will be the showdown between the Atlanta wide receivers and the New Orleans secondary.
Saints cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Eli Apple have been playing elite level football over the last six games, shutting down some of the league's better receivers. Safeties Marcus Williams and Vonn Bell, along with rookie nickelback Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, have given New Orleans their deepest and most talented secondary in quite some time. They have benefited from heavy pressure up front from a Saints defensive line that may be the most disruptive in the league. Defensive end Cameron Jordan has 8 of the team's 24 sacks, but Marcus Davenport (3 sacks) has provided constant pressure from the other end spot. The Saints defensive tackles have also given the defense inside disruption, often allowing Jordan and Davenport one on one opportunities on the edge. Malcom Brown, Sheldon Rankins, and David Onyemata have combined for six sacks and have consistently flushed quarterbacks from the pocket. The Saints domination up front could spell disaster for a Falcons offensive line that has been in disarray all year. Atlanta quarterbacks have been sacked 21 times this year and have been under constant duress. Cam Jordan has compiled an All-Pro career against Falcons, notching 14 sacks, 28 qb pressures and a forced fumble in 16 career games against them, including 6 sacks in their last three showdowns.
Those struggles along the offensive line have also all but crippled the Atlanta running game, which ranks 29th in the NFL with a paltry per game average of just 68 yards. Talented Falcons running back Devonta Freeman has never gotten on track thanks to the poor blocking, averaging only 3.4 yards per rush and not yet scoring a touchdown. Backup Ito Smith (neck) is now also out the rest of the season, leaving the Atlanta ground attack further limited.
The Saints own the NFL's fourth best run defense, giving up only 84 yards per game. New Orleans has not allowed a 100-yd. rusher in 34 consecutive games (including playoffs) and have held their last five opponents to under 100 yards as a team. The Saints defensive line has stonewalled the point of attack, not only making plays in the opposing backfield but also allowing the team's linebackers to fly to the ball unimpeded. Demario Davis leads the defense in tackles and is having a monstrous All-Pro season, while A.J. Klein and Kiko Alonso have both been standouts against the run.
This is the 100th regular season meeting between New Orleans and Atlanta, two of the most bitter rivals in the NFL today. The Falcons hold a 51-48 all-time lead in the series, plus winning the only playoff game between the two in 1991. The Saints have a 23-20 all-time record against Atlanta inside the Mercedes Benz Superdome however, site of today's game. This rivalry has always been unpredictable and hotly contested, but the Saints have held a pronounced edge since 2006, when Drew Brees and Head Coach Sean Payton came to New Orleans. Since that time, the Saints are 18-8 against Atlanta and 10-3 versus their nemesis in home games.
The athleticism that both teams have at the receiver positions have led to big numbers for both quarterbacks in these matchups over the last decade. The Saints defensive backs are playing at an extremely high level though, while Atlanta's back end has consistently struggled. New Orleans has also won their games by establishing dominance on both sides of the line of scrimmage, an area where they again look to have a huge advantage in this one. The Saints were one of the NFL's most balanced teams over the first half of the season, in spite of a number of injuries on the offensive side. New Orleans is now back at full strength to begin the second half of the year, and will flex their muscle