The Falcons have a tall task ahead of them in New Orleans, who will hope to replicate Carolina’s suffocating defense and productive ground game.
Here we go.
The last 12 months have been a whirlwind for Falcons fans. We’ve seen a long-tenured coach and very long-tenured general manager out the door, brand new faces in both positions, an offseason of personnel changes and a Julio Jones trade, not to mention an up-and-down start to this season. After all that, it’s time for the first Saints game of the season, an occasion for remembering how much we hate that stupid team and to root for them to be crushed by the Falcons. It just has been difficult to look ahead to this game with so much uncertainty swirling around our favorite team.
I say this because a couple of Saints fans have asked me why Falcons fans seem somewhat less than amped about this upcoming matchup, and I have to think it’s the combination of a long and tiring year and so much change on the wind. Now it’s here, though, and it’s time to remember what makes this rivalry great: When the Falcons beat the Saints and they’re sad and quiet for a while. I’m not heading into this week as energized and hopeful as I’d like to be, but even sitting here thinking about Sean Payton’s face if Atlanta pulls off a victory in New Orleans is giving me a little spark of joy Marie Kondo would advise me to keep.
Let’s talk about the matchup ahead.
The good news here is that this is not a great Saints offense, and it will be weaker without Jameis Winston. The bad news is…well, most everything else, unfortunately.
New Orleans is going to rely on a short passing game, though Taysom Hill will probably take a couple of wild deep shots along the way if he suits up Sunday. The Saints are down their starting quarterback and some key playmakers, and their receiving corps is the worst it has been in a while. They have Alvin Kamara, however, and have re-added Mark Ingram to a solid backfield that has been productive in 2021. Given that Carolina just won with a very half-hearted short passing attack and a willingness to run the football down Atlanta’s throat, the strengths and weaknesses New Orleans brings to the table offensively are unfortunately well-aligned with the things the Falcons can’t seem to stop.
Defensively, New Orleans is another tough matchup for this Falcons team. Their pass rush has been solid, their secondary is opportunistic and capable even if they’re not always great, and their run defense is excellent. Atlanta’s going to have to pass effectively and try to take advantage of a so-so overall Saints pass defense, but they’re going to find the sledding on the ground a lot tougher than they did against Carolina, as both Mike Davis and Cordarrelle Patterson had success last Sunday.
In short, the Saints are pretty good and are going to try to hew as closely to the Panthers gameplan as they possibly can, with the knowledge that their defense isn’t quite as capable of stopping a Falcons passing attack firing on all cylinders as Carolina’s proved to be. The Falcons will have to be able to at least motion toward stopping the run to win this game.
How the Saints have changed in 2021
The big change, obviously, is that Drew Brees is gone. The future Hall of Famer and increasingly noodle-armed pilot of the Saints offense retired in the offseason, and the Saints handed the job to Winston, who is now out for the season.
New Orleans actually lost quite a bit of talent this offseason, a product of having a typically awful cap situation they worked around as they annoyingly always do. Tight end Jared Cook, longtime defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, pass rusher Trey Hendrickson, punter Thomas Morstead and multiple linebackers were out the door with Brees. In all their whittling, they managed to keep a few key pieces of depth and Winston around, but it was clear they’d have to add some talent to supplement a still strong roster.
The biggest addition in a very small free agent class has been former Chief Tanoh Kpassagnon, a player I liked for the Falcons in the 2017 NFL Draft. He’s had a relatively quiet career to this point, especially as a pass rusher, but he’s already equaled his career high with four sacks and has been a valuable player for this Saints line.
The new draft class is a work in progress, albeit one with promise. Payton Turner is a hyper-athletic pass rusher in the mold New Orleans prefers and is having a solid if unspectacular start to his career there, cornerback Paulson Adebo is a full-time starter and has two interceptions already on the year, and linebacker Pete Werner is already getting a ton of work. Those three are the foundational pieces of this small draft class, but they’re all contributing in the early going.
If this sounds like a fundamentally underwhelming offseason, that’s because it was. It was also good enough to patch a few roster holes and give an unfortunately strong Saints team that little lift they needed to keep contending, which is very annoying.
What to know for Sunday
This will not be easy, not that you’d ever expect it to be.
The Saints are not invincible and the loss of Winston is going to hurt them, both now and in the future. We like to joke/talk very seriously about how backup quarterbacks and lesser lights prey on the Falcons, and that’s certainly a possibility for Taysom Hill in particular, but Winston was playing pretty well and Trevor Siemian and Hill are not in his league as pure passers. Recognizing that and knowing full well that the Falcons are faring well enough at corner to clamp down on their limited receivers, the Saints are likely to prioritize trying to find holes in coverage and exploiting them with Alvin Kamara and their tight ends.
So long as that’s even modestly successful, New Orleans will feel comfortable leaning heavily on the run. Carolina just smacked Atlanta in the mouth with a rookie running back and a couple of average reserves plus Sam Darnold, so Kamara, Hill and Mark Ingram will not have much trouble producing if the Falcons run defense isn’t sharper and better prepared. The hope is that they will be.
Offensively, I doubt we’ll see the Falcons wilt quite so drastically, but the Saints defense is still a formidable challenge. They have a terrific run defense, meaning this may not be a stellar day for Cordarrelle Patterson or Mike Davis on the ground, but they’ve let a fewer lesser lights like the Giants and Washington Football Team put up significant yards through the air. The Falcons will have a week to prepare and lessons from Carolina to apply, so if the pass protection isn’t a disaster they’ll hopefully be able to get more out of Kyle Pitts and not be solely reliant on Tajae Sharpe to generate the rest of their yards. Typing that made me sad.
I’d expect this to be a close, scrappy, potentially sloppy game, just like the one we just watched last Sunday. Whether the Falcons can win it depends entirely on their ability to put up a more even showing on defense and do a hell of a lot more through the air on offense, but having to travel to New Orleans and face a team fresh off a win against Tampa Bay despite losing Winston partway through the game is going to make this a huge challenge. I’m hoping for—but in line with my own advice to this fanbase, not expecting—a big divisional win.
It sure would be nice to leave the Superdome a little quieter and sadder.