The Atlanta Falcons open the year hosting their arch rivals, the New Orleans Saints. Both teams are coming off very different seasons. The Falcons had a miserable year as they collapsed to 4-12, while the Saints progressed to the divisional round of the playoffs. All that is history now as the two teams enter the 2014 season on equal footing: 0-0.
The emphasis of the offseason for Mike Smith was the trenches. The offensive line play was poor throughout. They struggled providing time for Matt Ryan, who was the 3rd most sacked QB in the league and took a career-high 44 sacks. They couldn’t get push upfront for Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers either, which resulted in the Falcons finishing dead last in rushing yardage. The defensive line was equally as bad. In terms of pass rushing, they also finished dead last in efficiency when they didn’t blitz and against the run they couldn’t help the 4.8 YPC surrendered. That was one away from the Chicago Bears who were, you guessed it, dead last.
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The Falcons moved quickly to remedy that problem. Free agency was highlighted by the signing of massive behemoth NT Paul Soliai and ex-Chiefs players OG Jon Asamoah and DE Tyson Jackson. The defensive signings signalled an end to the run woes, while pass-blocking extraordinaire Asamoah was brought in to add stability to the previously-revolving-door right guard position. OT Jake Matthews was drafted #6 overall and will start his career at left tackle. They spent their 2nd pick on DE Rashede Hageman who will likely be a rotational player early on in his career.
The Saints return much of the same starters from the playoff loss against the Seattle Seahawks. Tim Lelito will take over at center and there has been a shake-up in the secondary following the signing of premier safety Jairus Byrd. The Saints also lost Darren Sproles who I believe is a very under-appreciated player and I don’t think he will be easily replaced. Brandin Cooks was drafted in the 1st round and figures to take on that role but I have my doubts. As a WR, he’s undersized and relies solely on his speed to separate. Coupled with a small catch radius and difficulties catching passes in traffic, I think there will be a rough transition to the NFL. Saying that, he is extremely dangerous when he does have the ball in his hands and is capable of scoring from anywhere.
Since 2010, the only safety to create more turnovers than William Moore is Jairus Byrd.
Since 2010, the only safety to create more turnovers (INT + FF) than William Moore is Jairus Byrd. Byrd has 24 created turnovers in that span, which is 2 more than Moore’s 22. He was a fantastic signing for the cash-strapped Saints, and joins a star-studded secondary featuring the ever-consistent Keenan Lewis and possibly the brightest young safety talent in Kenny Vaccaro. The rest of the defensive backs are average at best, and could be taken advantage of. Patrick Robinson and Corey White have had struggles against the Falcons in the past. Rafael Bush is a solid player but not someone that’s going to scare you away from throwing at him due to his lack of playmaking skills.
With the final rosters set, there is vast intrigue surrounding both teams. It promises to be an engaging game for fans and neutrals alike.
Four Things To Watch
In the first fixture last year, the line got whipped to say the least. DE Cameron Jordan had his breakout game and dominated. RLB Junior Gallette was only used as a situational pass rusher but was also his first game in a breakout year that landed him a mega contract. DE Akiem Hicks also managed a sack and in the end, the Saints finished with 3 sacks and a further 5 hits and 21 hurries per PFF. Ryan was under durress on over 50% of his dropbacks, and his passer rating dropped from 139.7 to 48.4 when he felt heat. The offensive line didn’t fare any better in the second game, as the Saints notched 6 sacks, 5 hits and 16 hurries.
Simply put, they were overwhelmed by Rob Ryan’s ferocious attacking defense. Justin Blalock was probably the best lineman in both games and he returns this year. Joe Hawley played in the 2nd game and was solid. Both return to the starting lineup. New FA signing Asamoah is one of the most reliable guards around, I don’t worry about him. I worry more about Lamar Holmes and Jake Matthews. Holmes struggled in both games last year and while he did look a lot better in preseason, I can’t hang my hat on that. He’ll have to prove it in real action. Jake Matthews has had some ups and downs, and will see time against both of the Saints’ best pass rushers. Jordan typically plays on the right hand side until Gallette comes in during pass rushing situations, and he moves over to the left. They are two different styles of edge rushers that Matthews will have to deal with.
It is crucial for the Falcons to establish the run.
In the run game, it is imperative the interior plays well because the heart of the front 7 is where the Saints’ weakness lies. If you can control the DT and inside linebackers, the Falcons increase their chances of winning drastically. We saw this in the Seahawks-Packers blowout where the Packers were unable to get defensive stops. The powerful run game unlocked the play action and Wilson’s YPA spiked from 4.8 without play action to 11.1 with play action. It is crucial for the Falcons to establish the run, otherwise it makes everything harder on the offensive lineman and Matt Ryan. Pass rushers will pin their ears back, safeties will remain deep and no one will take missteps against play action.
Running Back Usage
It would be criminal if the Falcons continue to use a feature back system. They have 4 backs that can make plays, with each having their own strength. At this juncture, Steven Jackson is better suited for short yardage work and to be used as a battering ram. Jacquizz Rodgers is easily the best passing down back on this team. His blocking is excellent, he catches passes from the backfield with ease and is dangerous in space. Antone Smith is a speed demon, capable of scoring from anywhere. Just get him in space. Finally, Devonta Freeman might already be the best pure runner on the team. He demonstrates good vision, backed with a strong burst and lack of hesitation. He also the has skills to be lined out wide as a receiver and impact from that position also, but it is unclear if the Falcons will use him in that role.
The Falcons need to be smart and use all their backs. Each bring their own important qualities to the table.
Probably what I’m most looking forward to. I’ve long been anticipating the defensive scheme and the 3rd preseason game against the Titans was a nice teaser. You can count on it being aggressive and reckless, with blitzers coming from multiple areas. On Worrilow’s sack against the Titans, we saw both the inside linebackers being sent on the blitz while the outside linebackers dropped back in coverage. It created slight hesitation for Locker and before he knew it, Worrilow had sent him to the turf. Later on we saw Robert Alford on a blitz from the nickel back spot getting a sack. I like to envisage this scheme as organised chaos. We don’t have anyone to stop Jimmy Graham so the only thing we can do is get to the QB.
Tim Lelito will be making his first start at center and might be the greatest weakness to exploit. He started 2 games at right guard last season, one apiece against the Cardinals and the Falcons. He struggled mightily against Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell as PFF charged him with 3 sacks and 5 hurries, and a terrible run blocking grade. Against the Falcons he was beat for a sack by Peria Jerry but otherwise didn’t struggle near as much. The Cardinals use an aggressive blitz-happy scheme so the Falcons should have taken notes from that game.
Osi Umenyiora has been relegated to a specialist role but he could turn out to be the most important player. He will be going up against the young and inexperienced Terron Armstead and will be charged with one task:
Stop Drew Brees.
Intensity and Passion
The buildup to this game reminds me a lot of the week 3 2010 showdown. The Falcons shocked the defending champions in their own home with an OT win. What I remember the most from it was the intensity and passion displayed from the Falcons. Matt Ryan was visibly fired up all game. Todd McClure played like a true leader and left it all on the field. The Falcons were very chippy and no one wavered at any point. The effort level was high and defenders were swarming to the ball. It made you feel proud supporting this team.
If the Falcons can play at a similar intensity, which Mike Smith mentioned in Hard Knocks, it will bode well for them. There is an obvious difference between the lifeless 2013 team vs the Saints and the valiant 2010 team vs the Saints. The Falcons won’t win if they’re not putting everything on the line.
As always in these games, it will be decided in the final moments and I have the Falcons edging it 27-24. Thanks for reading.