This is it. This is the game that the Falcons want to get a victory in, or at least play very competitively in. The last time the Falcons made the trip to N.O., they were utterly embarrassed on Monday Night Football. Past the 1st quarter, it wasn’t even a game. If the Falcons are going to prove that they are truly improved and can compete with the Saints not only this season but going forward, this needs to be a statement game. It’s 1 P.M. on a Sunday, which I would argue helps the Falcons to an extent: the crowd won’t be nearly as wild as it would be for an evening primetime affair. I would love nothing more than for the Falcons to emerge from this game with a victory and stomp the Saints to death in New Orleans. Since that isn’t going to happen, lets take a look at some of the matchups the Falcons need to win in order to be successful.
Let’s take a look at the Falcons offense attacking the Saints defense. If you watched the game against the Saints in week 16 last season, you would remember seeing an offense that moved the ball well between the 20’s, but struggled in the red zone or beat themselves as a result of penalties or putting themselves in 3rd and long situations. On the first two drives of the game, the Falcons got a field goal and then connected on a 21-yard TD pass from Matt Ryan to Julio Jones. If you saw that catch, you’d realize the special type of throw that was from Ryan. Aside from those two drives however, the Falcons struggled. On one drive they had a run that went for a loss, and an incomplete pass. That in and of itself put them in 3rd & 11, a difficult defense for any team to convert, let alone a road team in a very loud dome stadium. On other downs, the Falcons were productive and converted 3rd & long chances, but they were brought back due to penalty. It is easy to say that those conversions would not have happened without the benefit of those penalties; however a student of the game who watched would see that they were late penalties that had no impact on the play itself, or were away from the play. I’m not saying that the penalties weren’t valid, as they were decent calls. However they were stupid penalties, the type of thing the Falcons can’t afford to have happen.
I will give you two of the examples. In the 2nd quarter, the Falcons were facing a 3rd & 10 on their own 42-yard line. Ryan completed a great 13-yarder to Harry Douglas giving us a 1st down in Saints territory, only to have it brought back by a holding on Jacquizz Rodgers. It came back, and the Falcons were forced to forfeit 10 yards. A 3rd & 20 is almost impossible to convert. Just ask anyone who tries to convert 3rd & 20 vs. 9 Velcro defense on Madden. It’s not going to happen. This is what happened a couple times to the Falcons offense. Another occasion late in the game, the Falcons were unable to convert 3rd &1 and 4th & 1 opportunities. It is absolutely essential that the Falcons A) don’t get into 3rd & long situations, and B) don’t make penalties. This is a good offense that will be operating against a defense that wasn’t great in 2011, and isn’t better this season, despite what people may say about their addition of Curtis Lofton. The Falcons are a talented team, and are capable of going score for score with the Saints. They simply need to cut out the dumb penalties. Otherwise they could have easily made the game last season competitive.
Defensively, how on earth do you stop the Saints? They are a juggernaut on the offensive side of the ball, and I doubt that they will be much different in 2012 despite losing Carl Nicks and Robert Meachem on offense. They still have a boat load of weapons at their disposal. Here are my keys to at least slowing them down:
1. Don’t allow easy completions to Darren Sproles. When he is allowed to catch the ball in space he makes big things happen. Give him a yard, and he will almost certainly make things happen, make the first man miss, and turn a 5-yard catch into a 50-yard gain. It is so much easier said than done, and you don’t want to expend too many defenders on covering Sproles alone, but if you can prevent half of the check-downs that Brees easily connects to Sproles on, that is a victory and makes the Falcons jobs easier.
2. Don’t allow the Saints to spread the defense out too much. When they spread you way out and are effective even on 3rd & long, they can use their run game. If they are allowed to use their run game against a defense composed nearly 100% of defensive backs, they will bust runs of 5+ yards every time– if not more. The Saints offense kinda works backwards: they use the pass to open up lanes for the running game, and then once the defense brings linebackers back onto the field, they pass some more. The Falcons can’t afford to let that happen. Getting off the field on 3rd downs is basically what I’m getting at here. Don’t allow their offense to really get running, spread us out, and then wear us down. If we are successful there, the odds increase in our favor.
3. Get pressure on Drew Brees. It’s only common sense, but it really makes all the defense in the world. Brees is athletic and mobile enough to really give a blitzing defense fits, but if you can get to him, he will cough the ball up one way or another. I have seen several times where he makes poor choices when under pressure, throws underhand passes, fumbles the ball away, and just generally makes errors. Every quarterback does those things, but when the Falcons are the defense, Brees seems to do it one more time per game on average. The Falcons added Asante Samuel on defense, meaning that Dunta Robinson will play the slot, and Brent Grimes will play the other starting corner position. The hope is that having that type of teeth in the defensive secondary will make the quarterback hold onto the ball a second longer, and then either take a sack or force a bad throw. Turnovers are opportunities for the Falcons, and they will need to create some to win. Drew Brees will likely still get his, but turnovers will even the score.
4. Don’t blow coverage. Nothing in the world is more frustrating that watching the Falcons defense leave one man uncovered, and have that man burn them to a crisp. That happened in 2011 in the Georgia Dome, when the Falcons blew coverage and Jimmy Graham was wide open in the end-zone for 6 points. Make the Saints EARN every point they get. Spotting them points/yardage once or multiple times a game is unacceptable, and the Falcons must not allow that to happen.
The formula for the Falcons to score offensively is not particularly complicated: get into 3rd & short situations, convert them, and don’t commit penalties. I know it sounds like the ABC’s of football, but that is all the Falcons need to do to be effective on offense. Defense requires several more things, but it is still very simple ideas: get to Brees, don’t conceed a single yard, create turnovers. If all those things go right, the Falcons can win anywhere in the world, and certainly in the Superdome.