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Interview with the Enemy: Rival week, the enigma of Taysom Hill

New Orleans Saints v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Another week of football, another week of our Interview with the Enemy series. This week, Dave Choate of The Falcoholic answers 5 quick questions ahead of our highly anticipated NFC South showdown: New Orleans Saints vs. Atlanta Falcons.

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The last time the Saints and Falcons met was on the 28th of November. New Orleans has also won 3 (of the last 4) matchups. Luckily for you guys, Drew Brees won’t be out there to lead a fourth quarter comeback – we’ve heard those don’t bode well for Atlanta. With that said, in Brees’ absence, is the key to this game the stronger offense, defense, or attempting an onside kick?

I didn’t think you’d even be cruel enough to lead with an onside kick question, but I suppose I ought to know better.

The offense is the key for certain. Defensively the team is making slow but steady strides, but predicting how they’ll do in a divisional game with Taysom Hill, Jameis Winston or both at quarterback is pretty tricky, and I fully expect there to be the kinds of lapses and mistakes that these Falcons have been so prone to make...well, forever now.

Offensively, though, the Falcons have all the pieces they need to ring up points. Calvin Ridley will be in this one alongside Julio Jones, Russell Gage and Olamide Zaccheaus can both be dangerous receivers, and Hayden Hurst has been a very good sideline option for Matt Ryan throughout the year at tight end. Pair that with a ground game that isn’t useless (though it has its moments) and the only thing holding back this offense is the Saints and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.

My disrespect for your defense knows no bounds no matter how well they do, but even I can acknowledge that they’re solid enough to cause headaches for Atlanta. That’s exacerbated by Koetter, a notoriously poor red zone play caller who has this team zipping downfield between the 20s and frequently settling for field goals inside the 20. Atlanta’s personnel suggest they can put 30 up and surpass 300 yards passing against the Saints for the first time all year, but I’m wary of an improved secondary mixing with Koetter’s pig-headed early down and red zone rushing habits spoiling things for Atlanta. They won’t win if the offense is sluggish.

Who would you guys prefer to prep for and face this weekend, Taysom Hill or Jameis Winston? Hill has been named the starter for this week, but the question stands: Does it matter against this “secondary?”

This question has maybe become a bit less relevant now that we know Hill is the starter, but I don’t really buy it. I’d prefer to face Hill and I’m hopeful this is Sean Payton committing to his biggest crush rather than yet another smokescreen from a coach in love with his own cleverness.

The reason for that is simple: I have no idea if Hill even a decent quarterback. I spent some time this week watching as many of those throws as I could and reading up on your very good scouting report on Hill at CSC and my sense is that he’s just not someone who has the touch, instincts, and ability to read a defense to sit under center and throw 25-30 times. I think if this is really Payton’s plan, Hill will have a couple of spectacular deep throws, a few errant balls his receivers make nice plays on, and quite a few sacks and interceptable passes. I just don’t think the Taysom Hill Payton talks about with all his “next Steve Young” hype truly exists.

What I do worry about with Hill is something you alluded to in your comments about him: The ability to tuck the ball and run. NFL defenses know he’s going to do that because he throws so rarely and he’s still a successful runner because of his size, speed, and the blocking he gets up front. If he’s under center for a full game he may just repeatedly scramble until the Falcons force him to stop, and lord knows that hasn’t been a strength of theirs in years. A Hill start would be annoying and might keep the Saints in the game, but I don’t think he’s the best option by any stretch of the imagination.

Winston is prone to mistakes but has a sterling 25/11 TD/INT ratio all-time against Atlanta, the product of him being able to punish Falcons defensive backs for small mistakes owing to his cannon arm and fearlessness. The Falcons have chiefly been beaten this year because someone has been willing to take a shot downfield against defensive backs who are too often just a bit out of position, and Winston has a much better chance of delivering those Falcons-killing throws than Hill, full stop.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that I like my team’s chances much better if Hill plays the entire game.

Finish this sentence: The Saints will win this game unless _________________.

I see your angle here, so let’s do this.

/deep breath

....unless the Falcons throw the ball effectively, run the ball effectively, achieve a balanced offense, sack Taysom Hill six times, sack Jameis Winston six times, pressure Hill a bunch, pressure Winston a bunch, force a bunch of bad Hill Throws, force a bunch of bad Winston throws, stop Kamara on the ground (something they’ve actually been pretty capable of in the past), get a couple of critical stops, etc. Basically, if the Falcons show up and play the caliber of football they have for three quarters at times this year—or for a full game against the Vikings—I like their chances of beating a Brees-less, possibly Lattimore-less Saints team quite a bit. Is that hubris and/or hate talking, given how frequently the Saints have won in recent years? You bet, and I stand by it.

If you were Sean Payton, how would you game plan to attack the Falcons defense?

The Falcons run defense has quietly been one of the most stout units in football this year, and they’ve repeatedly bottled up effective running backs. I think a ground-heavy attack with Kamara and Murray plays right into Atlanta’s hands because they’ve managed to build a defense where almost everyone is an active, effective tackler. Hill’s scrambling is still likely to be fairly effective, but I do question what happens if he’s in there all game and the novelty of those runs wears off. I’d be stunned if the Saints were able to beat the Falcons by going with a ground attack with minimal passing.

So yes, you’ll need to beat them through the air. This would be the week to uncork Jared Cook, because the Falcons have not managed to fix their ongoing issues covering tight ends, even if they’re getting a bit better at it. Kendall Sheffield in particular and Isaiah Oliver to a lesser extent should absolutely be targeted regardless of who they’re covering, as Sheffield is getting killed this year and Oliver has been shaky throughout the season. With rookie A.J. Terrell playing well and Darqueze Dennard locking down slot receivers effectively, it’s important to find those exploitable matchups and...well, exploit them.

It’s also important that the Saints take shots downfield. The Falcons have repeatedly been beat through the air in one of two ways, either on yards after the catch when a tight end or receiver breaks loose of initial contact and rumbles, or when shots downfield simply fly over the heads of overmatched defensive backs. Both Hill and Winston have strong enough arms to take advantage of that—I have no idea if Hill is accurate enough, though—and those coverage issues have not gone away even as the defense has made small but critical strides. If you can get, say, Emmanuel Sanders matched up against Sheffield down the sideline, I’d take that chance every single time until it backfires.

It’ll also be important that Hill and Winston do not plan to sit back in a clean pocket, because the Falcons actually are among the league leaders in pressures this year, per Pro Football Reference. A quick hit passing attack that features Kamara and Cook, plenty of Hill on the move, and the occasional deep shot when the opportunity presents itself will put the Saints in a good position to pile on points.

What is your prediction for the game? Who wins? Final score?

I have a very hard time taking off my rose-colored glasses when it comes to Falcons - Saints, mostly because I hate to lose to New Orleans so much. With a rested Falcons team against a Saints team minus Brees and possibly plus a full game of Hill, and with Atlanta looking healthier on balance, I genuinely like their chances of stealing one on the road even if I doubt it’ll be pretty and I doubt it’ll be a comfortable victory. I’m going with 34-31 Falcons in an offense-first throwback game for these two teams, but either way I expect a close, frustrating watch on Sunday.

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Despite my initial jokes, thank you, Dave, for taking the time to answer our questions. Saints fans, make sure you check out Dave and the work his guys are doing over at The Falcoholic. You can follow The Falcoholic on Twitter @TheFalcoholic, and of course, you can follow me @MaddyHudak_94. Who Dat!