The Falcons enter Sunday’s matchup against the dreadful Saints as 5.5-point home underdogs. However, there’s a way Atlanta comes out on top with an upset win. New Orleans has a ton of pressure to start producing results immediately with Dennis Allen at the helm. The roster is ready to win right now, and the team’s future is clouded by continued salary cap wizardry. All of the pressure is on the team that’s supposed to make the postseason, but the Falcons will need extraordinary performances from a couple of players to beat their hated rivals. Here are Atlanta’s biggest x-factors, one offense and one defense:
The Falcons’ offense will look much different with Mariota under center than it ever did with Matt Ryan, and the Saints know that.
“With Marcus Mariota, now we’ve got to go back and watch some Vegas film, maybe watch some Tennessee film,” Cameron Jordan said. “We’ve got to break down who he is because he’s not a traditional pocket passer like Matt was. This is going to change up their game a lot.”
Arthur Smith has shown flashes of brilliance in the past, and I expect it to become the norm this season with Mariota. The Falcons’ offense isn’t scaring many people, but it can be effective with designed quarterback runs and rollouts, which Smith didn’t really have the ability to do with Ryan.
‘We had plays that – we’ll continue to evolve there, but it’s preseason, we’re not going to show our hand in a lot of other stuff,” Smith said in a postgame press conference. “But, when you have athletic quarterbacks and you’re able to move the pocket, they’re going to be able to extend plays.”
Mariota is the X-Factor because the offense will face a daunting New Orleans defense. Smith can dial up all the gimmicks he wants, but there will come a time on third down late in the game where Mariota will have to do it himself, using his legs to extend plays. His mobility will add another dynamic element to Smith’s disposal. Considering how poor Atlanta’s offensive line is at protecting the passer, the ability to play off-script will be vital for any success in 2022, and particularly against one of the best defenses in the league.
I say to be determined because the Falcons haven’t named a starting nickel cornerback. Isaiah Oliver would be the first defensive back off the bench but was recently placed on the injured reserve. The defense will surely miss his presence. Right now, Dean Pees will choose between some combination of Mike Ford, Darren Hall, Dee Alford, and the reserve safeties.
Outside of the apparent need for some semblance of a pass rush, the player in the slot in Pees’ defense is incredibly important and even more so against an offense like the Saints. Michael Thomas and Jarvis Landry are both maestros working out of the slot — both of whom will undoubtedly be significant parts of any offensive gameplan.
It might not be as straightforward as fans think, either.
Some offensive personnel may dictate the fifth defensive back being a safety — used against bigger personnel units, usually with more tight ends or running backs. In contrast, more receivers would call for a corner to be the extra defender in nickel packages.
Going off the depth chart, the Falcons will likely turn to Hall or Ford, but I wouldn’t be shocked if the Falcons turned to the veteran Harris in some situations. He’s certainly not a reliable cover man, but he can play a variety of roles, which would again shift Hawkins or Grant to the slot. Given his impressive offseason, I would like to see Alford get some burn.
Photographer: Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire
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