Atlanta Falcons vs. New Orleans Saints. It’s the most bitter rivalry in the NFC South, one of the most heated in the entire NFL, and clearly not understood by those outside the rivalry. This is the biggest game left on the Falcons schedule, even though the Falcons still have other very tough games left after Week 13. In previewing the Falcons vs. Saints, here are the player v. player matchups to keep an eye on:
Falcons SS/LB William Moore & Sean Weatherspoon vs. Saints TE Jimmy Graham: In the Falcons & Saints first matchup, Weatherspoon was out while fighting an ankle injury. Moore was matched up with Graham half the time, and didn’t do a particularly good job, but he’s going to have to do better this time around, because he’s the only Atlanta DB with the size to matchup. The other player who matched-up with Graham in Week 10 was LB Stephen Nicholas, who is a fine defender, but not a player of Weatherspoon’s caliber when playing coverage. The Falcons have to contain Graham better than the 7 catches for 146 yards and 2 TDs he had the last time these two teams matched up.
Falcons LBs Sean Weatherspoon & Stephen Nicholas vs. Saints RB Darren Sproles: Weatherspoon was out the last time these teams met with an ankle injury, but Sproles was also out while recovering from hand surgery. The man is clearly still a huge threat. His first game back was last week against the San Francisco 49ers, and Sproles caught 7 passes for 65 yards. One of those passes went for 35 yards. Some interesting news is that he didn’t get a single carry, so when he’s on the field it’s obvious what the Saints intentions are. Now that the Falcons have Weatherspoon back, it will be his responsibility to counter Sproles in the passing game. The biggest thing Sproles does is take short passes and make things happen after the catch. ‘Spoon needs to try to break up the pass, but absolutely has to make the open field tackle and not allow any yards after the catch. The exact same can be said for Stephen Nicholas who will likely match up with Sproles when ‘Spoon is assigned to defending Graham.
Falcons receivers vs. Saints defensive backs in the red-zone: Clearly the Falcons aren’t having trouble moving the ball on the Saints defense between the twenties. That defense is something akin to a sieve. The real place that the Falcons offense struggled against the Saints (and against other teams for that matter), has been in the red-zone. Far too often, the Falcons have driven right down the field and come away with only a field goal. The three times that Ryan did throw a touchdown in the red-zone against the Saints, the receivers weren’t really open– Tony Gonzalez is just a beast in that area, and a tackle eligible pass that fooled most people. Roddy White nearly had the game winning score, but couldn’t get the extra foot of separation necessary to score. In those red-zone situations, the Atlanta receivers have to get separation, and when they can’t, they must position themselves so the only option is for them to come down with the pass. Red-zone efficiency for the Falcons in the red-zone is a must.