Thursday Night Preview - Week 12
Back at the end of August when I was given the Thursday Night Football preview article, I looked at the schedule and immediately identified tonight’s matchup between the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons as a can’t-miss game. After all, the storylines were all there: Sean Payton was returning to the sidelines, ready to make another championship run. On the other side of the ball, the Falcons were coming off a division title and a 13-3 regular season finish.
Oh what a difference three short months can make. Things are going well for the Saints, winners of two-straight games and sitting a game ahead of the Carolina Panthers in first place in the NFC South with an 8-2 record. For Atlanta, the wheels have completely fallen off at this point, coming into the game at the bottom of the division at 2-8 and having lost their last four games. While the Falcons may be playing for little more than pride at this point, this is actually a must-win game for the Saints if they hope to stay out in front of a surging Panthers squad that has won six straight. Luckily for New Orleans, this should be a pretty easy victory, but let’s take a look at what the Falcons will need to do if they hope to upset the Saints at home tonight.
Atlanta’s defense has been putrid this season, ranking 25th overall with a -39.0 grade, no higher than 22nd in any major category and with negative grades across the board. It’s quite obvious that it will be hard for the Falcons to stop Drew Brees and the Saints’ potent offense.
On the flip side, New Orleans is ranked 14th in overall defense with a +27.2 grade, ninth in pass coverage with a +4.7 and are giving up just 191.4 passing yards-per-game, which is the third fewest in the league. Their one weakness on defense has been against the run, as they’re currently ranked 17th with a +7.7 grade and are giving up 114 rushing YPG to opposing ‘backs, which is the 15th-most in the league.
If Atlanta wants any hope of staying with Brees and Co. when this quickly becomes a shootout, they’ll need to have a successful run game to keep the Saints defense on their toes and to open up space in the secondary. This seems simple enough, but Atlanta’s running game has been awful all season. Through the first 11 weeks, they’re currently ranked 19th in rushing offense with a +1.5 grade and averaging just 73.1 rushing YPG which is the second fewest. Steven Jackson hasn’t been the savior the Falcons hoped he would be to bring balance to their offense and has battled injuries all season. Plus, the trio of Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling have combined for just 597 rushing yards and three touchdowns, averaging a measly 3.5 yards-per-carry.
Atlanta does have the 11th ranked passing offense, currently sporting a +13.1 grade and averaging 274.4 passing YPG, the sixth most in the league. The passing game will need to be on point tonight for Matt Ryan to keep things close and the Falcons in the game, and the absolute only way this will work is if some mix of Jackson, Rodgers and Snelling can find and establish a dependable running game and exploit New Orleans’ only glaring weakness on the defensive side of the ball. It’s definitely going to be an uphill battle for the Falcons.
Fantasy X-Factor: Drew Brees
Who else would this really be? The Falcons are ranked 30th in pass rush and 25th in pass coverage, sporting a -18.7 and -30.3 grade, respectively. They’re also giving up over 249 passing yards per game, which is the 10th most this season and have given up 21 touchdowns to opposing quarterbacks, the second most in the league. Brees is averaging 337 passing yards, 2.6 touchdowns and 0.8 interceptions per game, and should shred this Falcons secondary apart.