The 2014 NFL regular season is right around the corner, and is there honestly any better way to start off a fresh, new year than against a most hated rival? No. The answer is no. The Falcons begin their quest for redemption against a team they’ve had trouble putting down as of late: the New Orleans Saints. T. from the fast-growing SportingATL.com and I took a closer look at the five most crucial aspects to a Falcons’ victory on Sunday, and why they may or may not be able to come out on the winning side of these vital match-ups.
Falcons’ Tackles vs. Saints’ Pass Rush
T: In 2012, Matt Ryan had his best statistical season to-date, eclipsing the 30 touchdown mark for the first time in his career while throwing for over 4700 yards. Sam Baker was healthy for an entire season, and Tyson Clabo manned the right tackle position admirably. Ryan attempted over 600 passes that year while only being sacked 28 times. What a difference a year makes! A large amount of blame for last season’s woes can be attributed to poor pass protection led by Lamar Holmes and a revolving door of other warm bodies, leading to the Falcons’ 6th overall selection of Jake Matthews. Jake will be a stalwart left tackle for Atlanta for years to come, but I don’t expect early success for the young rookie. He’ll be opposed by the likes of Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette in Week 1, a duo that combined for 24.5 sacks a season ago. Additionally, the aforementioned Holmes has played much better at right tackle than on Ryan’s blind side, but I’m not a believer just yet. Rob Ryan will undoubtedly dial up the pressure on #2 on Sunday, and I expect the Falcons to struggle to keep Matt upright.
RUR: Those are all great points, T. Sam Baker going down could be a bad omen for this team, as the Falcons typically struggle in years that Baker isn’t healthy. That being said, let me tell you why I think 2014 will put an end to that trend, starting with Week 1. Sliding Matthews over to the left side did two things: it upgraded the pure talent level at left tackle, and it also put Matthews and Holmes in their best positions to succeed. Matthews is a prototype left tackle, and Holmes plays much more comfortably on the right side. Yes, Holmes was an utter failure last season, but he’s quietly put together a respectable preseason (zero combined sacks and pressures allowed in 116 pass-blocking snaps according to Pro Football Focus) and looks much more technically sound than a year ago. Everyone knows about the sheer potential Matthews possesses; it’s just a matter of time before he gets comfortable and blocks more people than Dikembe Mutumbo. Having said that, Jordan, Galette, and Akiem Hicks will be a tough first test. I fully expect the Falcons to counter the Saints’ pass rush with designed screens, draws, and chip blocks, but don’t be surprised to see Holmes and especially Mathews hold their own on an island. If they can limit the amount of sacks and QB hits to around two or less, Ryan should have more than enough time to find his open man. In my book, that would be considered a big win for the two young tackles.
Falcons’ Rushing Attack vs. Saints’ Front Seven
RUR: All indications are that Steven Jackson will be back on the field for the season opener, but that shouldn’t get anyone too excited. Jackson didn’t play a single down in the preseason due to a hamstring strain, so he’s likely rustier than the Tin Man without a can of oil. In 2013, Jackson said himself that it took a few games to shake off the rust and get into a rhythm after yet another hamstring injury. The Falcons simply can’t afford to let that happen again, especially not with the rival Saints in town. This is somewhat of a must-win game for Atlanta, as a win or a loss will set the tone for the rest of the season. The Falcons should give ‘Quizz Rodgers, Devonta Freeman, and Antone Smith — who have each had very good pre-seasons — plenty of carries to wear out the defense, then let Jackson pound it in on goal-line and short-yardage situations — I just don’t think Atlanta will do that. If the staff tries to force Jackson back into action, I think you’ll see a lot of carries for no gain, and they’ll be making it way too easy for the Saints’ front seven.
T: While Steven Jackson may be a shell of his former self, he’s got enough left in the tank to be an effective back behind Tice’s remodeled offensive line. The theme of the off-season has been toughness, and I fully expect Dirk Koetter to display this new mentality through an early commitment to the running game. As you stated, Koetter has a talented stable of backs at his disposal, and I expect him to ride the hot hand if Jackson sputters out of the gate. Joe Hawley and the newly acquired Jon Asamoah should be able to open holes on the inside, and Falcons backs will be able to get to the second level quickly against New Orleans’ weak run defense. The key to this attack is sticking with the plan if early ground attempts don’t yield explosive gains. After all, the best defense against Drew Brees and his artillery of receivers is keeping him on the sidelines through a balanced, ball control-focused offense. As we all know, however, the Falcons’ game plan tends to go out the door when the team comes out of the tunnel after halftime. If Koetter abandons the ground game in the third quarter, I don’t expect much second half success if it turns into a shootout.
Mike Smith vs. Sean Payton
T: Do you ever truly approach a match-up with the Saints with any real confidence? If you held a gun to my head, I’m picking New Orleans on most occasions, and the headset-wearing weasle patrolling the Saints’ sidelines is the reason why. The man simply has our number, as evidenced by his 9-3 record against Smitty’s Falcons. His on-the-field relationship with Drew Brees can only be described as telepathic, as the two are always on the same page. Each time Atlanta dials up a blitz, they hit us with a screen to the blitzing side. When we sit back in coverage, the Saints’ otherwise mediocre ground game gains confidence and lulls us to sleep. If Nolan dares to stack the box, Jimmy Graham and the New Orleans WRs have field days. As someone who still has full confidence in Mike Smith even after last year’s disappointment, it pains me to say this, but Sean Payton is the far superior coach in this matchup. He’s an offensive mastermind, and if Brees and friends are clicking on Sunday, it will be difficult for the Falcons to match their firepower.
RUR: You’re absolutely right; Sean Payton has had the Falcons’ number for years, and it’s about time Mike Smith does something about it. I think Smith is very cognizant of the Falcons’ abysmal record against the Saints, and with his seat getting much toastier after a disastrous 2013, Smith will do everything in his power to reverse his team’s fortunes in this heated rivalry. He’s had all offseason to prepare for this game, and I believe he’ll have something up his sleeve on gameday. There are a couple of unknowns that could really benefit Smith and the Falcons in this one. Week 1 will be the first time that anyone sees what the new Falcons’ defense truly looks like; the Saints don’t have any 2014 tape to study of Atlanta’s hybrid 3-4 and 4-3 defensive looks, and that should heavily favor the Falcons when the teams hit the field. Additionally, the Falcons have a secret weapon on offense: Devin Hester. How Smith utilizes his wealth of offensive weapons could be the difference between a win and a loss. It’s easy to forget, but the Falcons were a dropped pass away from winning last season’s opener in New Orleans and fought valiantly in a four-point November loss when seemingly everyone but Matt Ryan was injured. These rivalry games are almost always close contests, and the Falcons are certainly due for a win. Since 2008, the Falcons are an impressive 36-12 at home under Smith, and I believe win number 37 will come Sunday afternoon.
Slowing Down Jimmy Graham
RUR: Jimmy Graham has always been a gigantic thorn in the Falcons’ side, scoring seven touchdowns in his past seven games against the Dirty Birds; I honestly don’t expect much to change this week. Somehow, Graham is still an ascending player, and the Falcons still don’t employ anyone on their roster that can match up with him. The Falcons will likely try some sort of double coverage with a linebacker and safety over the top, but that just hasn’t worked in the past. William Moore was abused in coverage by Graham last year, and the Falcons don’t have a linebacker capable of handling Graham’s combination of size and speed. Atlanta’s best option would be to try and limit Graham’s opportunities as much as possible and hope he doesn’t break any more records or goal posts in the Dome. Simply put, start Graham in your fantasy league this week.
T: If there’s anything Mike Nolan has been preparing for during the seemingly endless off-season, it’s stopping Jimmy Graham. He’ll allow Desmond Trufant to mirror Colston in man-to-man for most of the game, allowing a rotating assortment of other DBs and linebackers to key on Graham. I expect William Moore to double Graham early and often with linebacker help, and Kroy Biermann will drop in coverage on #80 at times as well. I think you’ll see some inside pressure from Worrilow and Shembo on blitzes, especially with the lack of experience at the Saints’ center position. Hopefully this forces Brees to rush a throw or two to his tight end, resulting in a game-changing pick.
Hell, Mike, who am I kidding—the only way to stop Jimmy Graham is to tie him up at Hartsfield before he’s got a chance to get on the team bus.
Falcons’ Defensive Front vs. Saints’ Offensive Line
T: Thomas Dimitroff was aggressive in free agency to bolster a defensive line that was terrible last season in both stopping the run and putting pressure on the quarterback. Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson are gigantic run-stoppers who will occupy space in the middle, and Ra’Shede Hageman is an enigmatic force who can provide inside pressure, but expect Brees to have a relatively clean pocket on Sunday. The Saints have one of the league’s best aerial attacks, and Brees will surgically carve any defense that gives him time. Dimitroff’s efforts to solidify the interior defensive line won’t likely pay huge dividends in 2013, and next off-season’s primary objective will be to find impact edge rushers. I understand that Rome wasn’t built in a day and that the Falcons had many needs to address this summer, but I would’ve liked to see more attention to this need area. I’m not yet on the Massaquoi bandwagon, and Osi and Kroy will not put fear into the hearts of the Saints’ talented tackles. Second year LT Terron Armstead was excellent down the stretch last season. In fact, Pro Football Focus gave him a perfect 100.0 pass blocking efficiency rating against the Seahawks in the NFC Divisional Playoffs. Zach Strief, one of the NFL’s most consistent right tackles, was PFF’s second best RT in all of football in 2013. If the Falcons plan on generating any pressure on Brees this Sunday, I’d expect Nolan to call a few inside blitzes for Shembo and Worrilow. If not, the Falcons’ secondary could have their hands full.
RUR: As we saw throughout the preseason, I don’t think many teams will be able to run on the Falcons this year. The problem will be getting consistent pressure on dangerous QBs like Drew Brees. The Falcons don’t yet have their crown jewel of a pass rusher, but this season’s deep-rotational approach could still bear fruit for Atlanta. The Falcons’ defensive line rotation is so deep, they practically have two separate defensive lines. In 3-4 sets, the Falcons have Tyson Jackson, Paul Soliai, and Jonathan Babineaux up front. In 4-3 looks, Jonathan Massaquoi, Corey Peters, Malliciah Goodman, and Kroy Biermann will likely be the down lineman — not to mention up-and-comers Ra’Shede Hageman and Stansly Maponga, in addition to designated pass rusher Osi Umenyiora. As you can see, the Falcons defensive line is much, much deeper and more talented than a season ago. Atlanta will be able to rotate fresh bodies in at will throughout the game and theoretically tire out the Saints’ offensive line. The newly-acquired big bodies up front should open up plenty of gaps for linebackers to shoot through, as Paul Worrilow’s four combined preseason sacks and pressures can attest to. If youngsters like Massaquoi and Goodman can continue to ascend and develop into bona fide pass rushers in their own right, Atlanta’s front seven — and defense as a whole — should have no problem handling the Saints’ offensive line.
Mike (RUR): Atlanta wins 24-21
T: Atlanta wins 30-24
A huge thanks goes out to T. for his excellent work in this collaboration piece. I look forward to continuing to work together in the future! Be sure to check out SportingATL.com and follow T. on Twitter (@SportingATL) for complete coverage of Georgia sports.