It may sound cliche, but there truly are smaller games within the game that decide the outcome of every NFL game. On Sunday in New Orleans, the Atlanta Falcons will have to really do their best to make the most of every mis-match they can possibly get. Here are the matchups that could turn the balance of the game in the Falcons favor:
Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez vs. Saints SS Roman Harper & FS Malcolm Jenkins: It would be tempting to say that the biggest matchups will be on the outside with Roddy White and Julio Jones, but each are more talented than the players they will be lining up against, I wouldn’t worry about it. The can be made much more effective, however, if Tony Gonzalez does a good job of controlling the middle of the field against the New Orleans safeties. If Gonzalez can do a good job of getting open and dictating that the Saints pay excessive attention to him, it will really open up things for Jones and White. It also really helps the running game, as both safeties are solid against the run. If they can be forced to try (key word being try) to cover Gonzalez, it opens up the outside receivers and the running game.
Falcons SS William Moore & FS Thomas DeCoud vs. Saints TE Jimmy Graham: Graham is a tremendous receiving talent at the tight end position, and he really requires attention from a safety (a player fast enough to keep up with him, yet with the size to compete physically). I’m not really sure that there is a safety in the league who can really 100% lock-down Graham, so the onus will be on the Falcons safeties to limit him. Don’t let him get deep, and don’t let him push you around. I remember the game in Atlanta last year where Graham used a double move, torched the Falcons defensive backs, and was all by himself in the endzone. That’s simply can’t happen.
Falcons DE John Abraham vs. Saints OTs Zach Strief & Jermon Bushrod: These two Saints offensive tackles aren’t the best tandem in the NFL. Last season Bushrod was very good, but he has struggled this season, and it’s doubtful New Orleans would re-sign him to a big contract after this season. Strief hasn’t been very good either, and it’s questionable whether or not he actually plays on Sunday. If not, he will be replaced by Charles Brown. Abraham may be the Falcons’ elder statesman, but he can still really bring the pass rush, and I would expect the Saints to really try to double-team him all game long. That would allow the Falcons to have one-on-one matchups with other lineman, or the freeing ability to free up another defender to drop into coverage. I think interior pass rush is the real key, but if the Saints pay a bunch of attention to Abraham, it will allow the Falcons go generate that interior rush and get Brees off his spot.
Falcons CB Asante Samuel vs. Saints QB Drew Brees: Brees is one of the smartest quarterbacks in the league, but he will take some chances. It’s going to be Asante Samuel’s job to do three things: A) DO NOT GET BEAT BY A DOUBLE MOVE. Brees will likely try that early, and Samuel can’t let it happen. B) Make any easy plays possible. If Brees sends any easy interceptions or easily defensible passes his way, he needs to make things happen. If Brees sends a pass that is easily catchable for Samuel, he needs to bring it in and not drop it they way he did against Dallas. C) Bait Brees into something bad. It’s going to be important for Samuel to know when he has to play deep and has to stay over the top of his receiver, and when he has safety help over the top and can take the chance to make a play. And when he has safety help and has a good chance to make the play, go back to item B in this list.