3TFO: Falcons @ Saints, Week 1
Going back to 2009, it’s been either the New Orleans Saints or the Atlanta Falcons walking away with the NFC South divisional crown. This year, the two meet in the first week with the prize being an immediate leg up on a key division opponent. While Atlanta works to get over the hump and reach the Super Bowl after its crushing defeat to the 49ers in the NFC Championship, New Orleans, with Sean Payton back at the helm, is just trying to get back on track.
With an abundance of weapons on both offenses, this game probably comes down to Drew Brees vs. Matt Ryan. Will Ryan be able to catch Rob Ryan’s defense off guard before all of the kinks are worked out? Is the combo of Brees and Payton ready to unleash an entire season of frustration on the Falcons’ defense? This game is one of the better matchups on Sunday’s slate and could be a telling affair as to who is holding the power in the South.
Here are a three other areas to focus on as the season kicks off:
Getting Jackson Going
These teams split their two matchups last year, with each winning its respective home game. In Atlanta’s loss, the team rushed for a pedestrian 46 yards against the New Orleans front. The Falcons realized that they needed an upgrade at the running back position and signed former Ram, Steven Jackson, in the offseason, while letting starter Michael Turner walk. If he’s able to return to form, Jackson’s 2012 rating of +9.2, compared to Turner’s -3.4 could represent a huge boost and an added element to round out the Atalanta attack.
The first line looking to keep Jackson in check will be the Saints’ Cameron Jordan, Broderick Bunkley, and Akiem Hicks, each of whom graded positively against the run in 2012; Jordan leading the way with his +15.7 mark (third-best among 4-3 DEs) and 7.9 Run Stop Percentage (seventh in the position group). But, with Atlanta’s ability to pass the ball and their preference for 11-personnel sets, the new-look Saints D should be spread out enough to give Jackson plenty of running room and put more pressure on the second level defenders – a factor that could pay off huge for the Falcons and their offensive productivity.
Allowing Jermod Bushrod to move on showed what the Saints think about Charles Brown’s potential. Brown has mostly played right tackle during his time in New Orleans, but will now kick over to the left in order to protect Brees’ blind side. In his 83 preseason snaps, Brown has not fallen all over himself (grading out at -0.5) but in his three previous seasons of part-time duty on the right, he’s logged at total of just 542 snaps and a cumulative grade of -3.2.
Bushrod struggled against the Falcons in the team’s first matchup of 2012, being beaten handily by John Abraham, Kroy Biermann and Jonathan Babineaux. With Abraham out of town, Brown will likely see a heavy dose of Osi Umenyiora who, through the preseason and large chunks of the past few seasons in New York, failed to flash consistently dominant form. He’s not the player who once humiliated Winston Justice on national television and it’s worth noting that during preseason he could only muster a hit and two hurries on 39 pass rushes. After a disappointing last year with the Giants, he’s got a lot to prove.
New Orleans is hoping that bringing in Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator will solve its lingering defensive woes. That said, these things can take time and Ryan is a guy with a reputation larger than the recent production from his units. What’s more, he’s joining a unit that is lacking in top-end talent.
Sure, the defensive line has the look of an imposing unit on it, but against a team like Atlanta it’s more likely going to be left to the pass rushers, particularly those guys off the edge, to force mistakes out of Matty Ice. The team made a move for Parys Haralson and welcomes back Junior Galette and Martez Wilson, but there’s a lack of experience in this system there and that often leads to miscommunication and the kind of breakdowns an efficient machine like Atlanta is built to take advantage of.
With the Falcons starting second-year right tackle Lamar Holmes (who, with a -7.5 grade was the fourth-lowest rated tackle in preseason) they can be exposed, and you need only see how Ryan’s quarterback rating drops from 110.9 to 67.5 when under pressure to know he’s not flawless. If this game turns into the expected shootout, it could be how the Saints’ unheralded outside linebackers generate pressure, that determines the outcome.