Can the Saints sweep the series?
Another week of football, another week of our Interview with the Enemy series. This week, Dave Choate of The Falcoholic is back to answer 5 quick questions ahead of our highly anticipated NFC South showdown: New Orleans Saints vs. (now somewhat competent?) Atlanta Falcons.
I’m sure you’re all gloating over handily beating a team the Saints lost to this season. The difference-makers against the Raiders were clear: five turnovers, stifling the run game and limiting Josh Jacobs to just 27 rushing yards, and five sacks on Derek Carr. Pretty reminiscent of our Week 11 discussion of the blueprint to beat the Saints, as the Falcons did in their first matchup last year.
Unfortunately, this strategy was about as effective as Todd Gurley’s ability to fall on the 1-yd line in the extremely close game against New Orleans two weeks ago. Seeing as Sean Payton turned Taysom Hill into a disciple of Football Protection Academy last week, what is Atlanta’s (futile) strategy to rattle the Saints offense this time around?
I think the strategy is much the same as it was against the Raiders. Bring pressure, focus on shutting down the run, and force a quarterback who may or may not be overwhelmed to have to beat you.
The problem is that there’s no guarantee that strategy will work. Atlanta’s clearly capable of astonishingly effective defensive displays, and they can at least slow down the New Orleans ground game, but getting consistent pressure on Hill is key to actually rattling him. The jury seems to be out on how much that actually shakes him up and how much is just him throwing weird passes at random, but I still think it’s the best way forward for Atlanta this time.
There are two key differences between this game and the last one. The first is the return of Marlon Davidson, Atlanta’s promising second round pick at defensive tackle, who finally was healthy enough to get some playing time and did quite well against the Raiders. The second is the emergence of defensive end Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, who played a season-high snap total against the Raiders and was relentless, forcing two fumbles, recovering one, sacking Carr and winning NFC Defensive Player of the Week because of it. Those two will bolster the defensive line, especially considering the Falcons gave a ton of playing time to former Saints DT Tyeler Davison, who you know is not exactly a pass rushing force.
Again, I don’t know if there’s any way the Falcons completely shut down this Saints offense, but I think they’re solid enough to at least impact Hill. If they can avoid catastrophic coverage failures this time out, maybe that will be enough.
Speaking of the run game, hello Ito Smith. On the offensive side, it was clear that establishing the run game with Smith and the solid offensive line play that led to just one sack on Matt Ryan were primary factors in the 43-point total. You have to consider that the Raiders are ranked 31st in sacks this season with just 12; their rush defense is pretty middle of the pack at 13th. Comparatively, New Orleans has the 6th highest sack total this year at 33 – and we know where 8 of those came from – and the top-ranked rush defense.
Perhaps if it was any other team, it would be easy to assume that this successful strategy would carry over into this week’s preparation. Was this more of a case of the Raiders defense just being really bad in both these facets, or did Atlanta actually get good at running the ball and protecting Ryan in a week’s time? What exactly is the key to the Falcons success on offense this time around?
Honestly, the Falcons offense wasn’t even that good against the Raiders. The ground game achieved moderate success with 110 yards on 25 carries and Smith’s touchdown, but the passing game sputtered again with just 185 yards on 39 passes, plus two touchdowns. For those scoring at home, they wound up with just over 300 yards on the day and just three touchdowns, meaning the rest of the points came off of Younghoe Koo’s leg and an excellent performance by the defense.
The Raiders defense is not great and was not able to truly punish the Falcons for their inept day, but my concerns about this team keeping Matt Ryan from going down 6-10 times again have not diminished against the Saints. James Carpenter, the team’s starting left guard, will be out and will be replaced by either a journeyman (Justin McCray) or a relatively unproven young option (Matt Gono or Matt Hennessy). Atlanta’s gameplan minus Julio Jones, if it comes to that, (*Editors Note: it won’t*) has to feature a lot of quick passes to receivers who have to get open, or the result is going to be much the same.
I’m not hyper-confident the Falcons have suddenly learned to run the ball effectively, either. Brian Hill and Smith (and if he’s available, Gurley) are fine runners but this is a tough run defense. I’d much rather see Dirk Koetter try to get them involved as safety valves in the passing game, something he’s been reluctant to do all year.
That’s sort of the key to offensive success, I think. Can the Falcons find out a way to get the ball out more quickly and pick up yards after the catch, and can they spread the ball out more to backs and tight ends to force New Orleans to do something other than bring pressure all game long? If they can, I like their chances of hanging around in this one.
Finish this sentence: The Saints will win this game unless _________________.
Dirk Koetter has learned his lessons from the last two games and brings the aforementioned quick passes into the offense, and/or the defense has a truly dominant day again filled with flustered Taysom Hill turnovers. God, what a happy thought.
If you were Sean Payton, how would you game plan to attack the Falcons defense?
This time around, at least, you want the ground game to be a big piece of the puzzle. The Falcons strangely decided not to tee off on Hill in the last game, giving him enough time in the pocket to step into some throws that were far better than I would’ve expected from him. If you can run the ball effectively and get Hill to make crisp short-to-medium throws to Michael Thomas in particular, and the rest of the offense more generally, you can put this defense back on its heels a bit and force them to not just blitz all day, which is what I anticipate they’ll try in the early going.
I think it’s a question of how much you trust Hill. The Falcons have been improving on defense and are unlikely to be caught off guard by him this time around—you can argue they shouldn’t have been the first time, but whatever—so he’ll need to be poised and accurate to keep things moving. Getting more out of Alvin Kamara, who was pretty pedestrian against Atlanta and appears to be overlooked as a receiving option with Hill under center, would probably help too.
What is your prediction for the game? Who wins? Final score?
I hate to even type it, but I’ve got New Orleans winning 27-20. The Falcons will fare better this time because they had to have learned something from their failures last time out, but Koetter’s mighty struggles as offensive coordinator, the injury to James Carpenter, the possibility that this offense once again won’t have Julio Jones, and Hill’s solid outing last time out conspire to make me think they probably won’t be able to pull this one out. Hope I’m wrong.
You heard it here first – even the Falcons can’t back themselves. All kidding aside, 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. Two Dat!