3TFO: Saints @ Falcons, Week 12
Before the start of the season, many of us expected a deep playoff run by the Falcons. Unfortunately, this year has gone worse than anybody could have expected. Atlanta has been decimated by injuries to Julio Jones, Steven Jackson, Roddy White, and a host of others. Without much of the star-power, we’ve seen many holes in the Falcons lineup get exploited regularly, as evidenced by the 2-8 record.
The resurgent Saints remain on track for one of the best records in the NFC. At this point, they have their sights set on a first-round bye, and would love to lock up home field throughout the playoffs. With a strong Seahawks team ahead of them in the race for the No. 1 seed, New Orleans can’t afford to slip up at all. That said, this has all the makings of the dreaded ‘trap game.’ Atlanta has some players back from injury, and one can never count out a team with a true franchise quarterback. Here are some of the key areas to focus on when watching this matchup.
Brees vs. Ryan
Any time two teams with big-name quarterbacks face off, it seems like they’re trying to outduel each other, often creating the sense that whoever has the ball last will win. Both of these quarterbacks have proven their ability to engineer game-winning drives, and if this game remains competitive throughout, all eyes will be on them. For Drew Brees, this season’s performance has gone a long way toward helping fans forget about last year’s disappointing team. Brees currently ranks third in our PFF QB Rating at 96.46, just behind Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning. Brees has been on point with his passes, as shown by his Accuracy Percentage of 77.0 (fourth best in the league), and he’s thrown 10 touchdeowns on Deep Passes, more than any other quarterback. With weapons like Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles, and Marques Colston at his disposal, Brees looks pretty unstoppable when in rhythm.
Matt Ryan hasn’t quite enjoyed the same success this season. With all the injuries, Ryan has struggled to find chemistry with his receivers, and he lacks the deep threat to stretch the field. In the 2012 regular season, Ryan completed 27-of-67 Deep Passes for 913 yards, 10 TDs, and two INTs. Deep passes accounted for 10.9% of Ryan’s throws last year, but this season he’s down to 6.2% in that regard. In the five games without Julio Jones, Ryan has attempted just 11 deep passes. While his accuracy has been almost identical to that of Brees, Ryan has not been able to pick apart defenses like he did last season, and he currently ranks 14th in the league with a +5.6 overall grade.
Jackson vs. the Saints Run Defense
One of the reasons for Ryan’s difficulty has been the complete lack of a running game this season. The Falcons have only attempted 18.5 rushes per game, easily the fewest in the league, and they rank 31st in rushing yards as a team. They’ll need to get it going this week in order to help keep Brees off the field. Fortunately, Steven Jackson has returned to the lineup and last week he showed some of his tackle-breaking ability against the Bucs. Although Jackson gained just 41 yards on 11 carries, 33 of those yards came after contact and he forced four missed tackles. Atlanta desperately needs some balance right now, and Jackson has the ability to plug away and help keep the chains moving. Of course, better run blocking wouldn’t hurt either.
On the other side, the Saints’ defense has been exceptional against the pass this year, but just middle of the pack against the run. In fact, they’ve allowed 4.9 yards per carry on the season. That average may be inflated a bit by garbage-time numbers, but the Saints can be susceptible to the power run game. Doug Martin, Stevan Ridley, and Chris Ivory have each had quality games against the Saints this season. New Orleans features a defensive line that has been stout against the run, with Akiem Hicks, Broderick Bunkley, and Cameron Jordan. Each has graded positively in run defense, but none have been dominant. Behind them, nobody has really stood out as an impact run-stopper. This is an area where the Falcons really have an opportunity to gain an edge.
The Falcons lack of tackling has been a huge problem of late. In the past three games, Atlanta has missed a total of 32 tackles. To put that number in perspective, the Patriots as a team have missed just 48 tackles on the entire season. It hasn’t just been a few players for the Falcons; it’s a team-wide issue. In each of those last three games, at least seven different Falcon defenders missed a tackle, but no single player missed more than two. When thinking about missed tackles, we often immediately jump to the running game, but they can be especially costly in the passing game. Atlanta can’t afford to have Saints receivers breaking tackles after the catch and running free through the secondary. If the Falcons can clean up this area and win some of the key matchups, this could make for a very competitive game and possibly even an upset.
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