Not even two weeks ago in New Orleans, the Saints beat the brakes off the Falcons in Taysom Hill‘s first start at quarterback. This week in Atlanta, the Falcons will look to spoil their rival’s playoff aspirations. New Orleans potentially locks up not only a playoff berth with a win this weekend in Atlanta, but as the current first seed in the NFC, a win will keep the Saints on track in maintaining the conference’s only first-round bye these playoffs.
A victory over the Saints will not keep them out of the playoffs, but it could negatively affect their seeding. From my Overreaction Tuesday on the Falcons and Saints rivalry, there is a perfect illustration of just how far the ripple effect can travel in the NFL.
“Think back to November 10th, 2019; the 7–1 New Orleans Saints hosted the 1–7 Atlanta Falcons in the Superdome. However, the 14-point underdog Falcons shocked the Saints, beating them by a score of 26–9. The Falcons defense, which had just seven sacks all season, recorded six on Drew Brees, and the Saints were held without a touchdown. Although the Saints finished the season 13–3, the loss forced them to play on Wild-Card Weekend, in which the Saints infamously lost at home to the Minnesota Vikings in overtime.”
The first matchup between these teams was loaded with drama, mostly surrounding the Saints. Leading up to the game, the chips seemed to all be falling the Falcons way. Atlanta was coming off a bye week and returning many injured players. At the same time, New Orleans entered the game with a quarterback — Taysom Hill — who had only attempted 20 something passes and without their top corner — Marshon Lattimore. This week, circumstances differ slightly compared to Week 11.
Instead of an extra week of preparation, the Falcons will have even less time together than a normal week. After a flurry of positive COVID-19 tests created scheduling issues across the league, the NFL forced all organizations to shut their facilities down on Monday. As Tuesdays are usually off-days, Atlanta was not scheduled to return to Flowery Branch until yesterday (Wednesday).
The defense is riding high coming off their best outing of the season, while the offense seems incapable of overcoming Dirk Koetter‘s primitive system. Most importantly, the coaching staff now has two games worth of film to study of this Taysom Hill led offense.
Taysom Hill will start his third consecutive game after a lackluster performance against Denver. Although the Saints’ offense looked pedestrian at times, there was an entirely different approach to the game when news broke that the Broncos were forced into starting a practice squad wide receiver. Sean Payton displayed a much more conservative offense, relying on their stout defense to win the game. Fans of both teams should not expect the same strategy this week.
Each team could be short-handed, as many starters are questionable. The Falcons will be without Olamide Zaccheaus and could be missing Julio Jones, Todd Gurley, and James Carpenter, as they are all designated as questionable as of yesterday (Wednesday). The Saints are expecting Sheldon Rankins to return this week but will be without starting left tackle Terron Armstead due to a positive COVID-19 test. Janoris Jenkins, Deonte Harris, Andrus Peat, and Marquez Callaway were all listed as questionable.
If Peat is absent for the matchup, New Orleans would be without two of their best offensive lineman. This news should have Raheem Morris, Jeff Ulbrich, and the entire front-seven salivating. I expect the Falcons to continue to follow trends after implementing more press coverage and pressure over the last six games compared to a prevent style defense in the first five. The defense found success against the Saints offense in the first half (10-9 at halftime), in part, due to the more aggressive play-calling.
What will be hard to watch is the offense struggling against one of the NFL’s best defenses. For this offense to keep this game close, it will take a collective effort from each player and coach. In the last two games against the Saints, Matt Ryan has been sacked 17 times. Atlanta must eliminate negative plays to stay ahead of the chains, giving them the best chance to sustain drives.
There has to be a concerted effort; the offensive line needs to protect better, the running backs need to pick up blitzes better, the wide receivers need to find separation earlier in routes, and Ryan needs to get rid of the ball faster. This will at least minimize those negative plays. Effectively running the ball on earlier downs to stay ahead of the chains will allow Koetter to call more explosive plays as the Saints’ defense must respect both phases of the offense. Finally, they must capitalize when given favorable field position by an inevitable Taysom Hill turnover. Scoring only nine points off three turnovers in the first half last week will not win the game this week.
The defense must deliberately stack the box and dare Payton to beat them with Hill’s arm. Alvin Kamara is basically non-existent in this passing attack with Hill starting. In the two games with Hill under center, Kamara has 97 total yards, one touchdown, and one reception for -2 yards. The defense must stop the two-headed monster of Kamara and Latavius Murray. Hill will surely put the ball in harm’s way, and the Falcons need to capitalize by creating a turnover to give the offense a better chance of finding the endzone.
Overall, the offense has to stay committed to running the ball. Koetter also has to call more high-percentage throws. These two strategies should neutralize the pass rush. The defense has to play exactly the way they have been over the past six games, minus the second half of the last Saints game. If that happens, the Falcons should be able to flip the script at home and come away with a victory.
Photo: Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire