G’day Falcons fans, and welcome back to the contribution I, in collaboration with fellow Aussie Falcons fan dunlagh, hope to be making to the Falcoholic. I’ll analyse the best case scenario for the Falcons, with what are, in my opinion, a few keys to victory, while dunlagh will play devil’s advocate and look at how the game will turn out if we play at our true worst.
G’day guys, putting this one out a little earlier this week because I am just so pumped for this game. Truth be told, I wrote this 12 hours after the Colts game, that’s how keen I am to see the first battle between the top two teams in the NFC South. Despite, or maybe due to, my loathing of the Saints, this matchup has been my favourite for many years now, and I just can’t wait for the kickoff.
Last week’s game was great; we performed well on defence, Ryan settled into a rhythm (eventually), Jacquizz got more involved than in previous games and, of course, Julio Jones happened. Not to take anything away from what was a great performance all round, but beating the winless Colts and battling the Saints are two completely different stories. Saints games have been tougher than usual recently, with the two teams splitting wins last year (both road teams won), and this year should be no exception. Setting their clash with the Rams aside, the Saints have been a powerhouse this year, and are 2nd in passing yards, total yards and score per game. If there is ever a test for our reinvigorated defence, this is it. The Saints are a great football team, but they’re not unbeatable, so this week the best case scenario comes if we test the deep ball early, utilise our nickel package and control the clock.
Test the deep ball early: I think most analysis this week will focus on the ground game, and the matchup between the Saints’ run D and Michael Turner. The Saints rank 19th in defending the run and allow just shy of 120 yards on average on the ground. However, the Saints have only allowed 3 backs (Earnest Graham, DeAngelo Williams and Steven Jackson) to top 100 yards in a game this year. 30% of first downs allowed by the Saints have come on the ground, and Falcons have achieved 30% of their first downs via rushing. The run game will be pivotal, as it always is, to helping open up the offense and loosening up the field. However, this week I’m suggesting we take a different approach. It is clear to see that Turner busts his bigger runs later in the game, when the defence is gassed and the holes start to open a little wider. This week, I suggest we work the deep ball early, and make the Saints accountable to the pass before setting up the run. We are 25-2 in games where Turner has 20+ carries, however, if we feed him the ball sparingly in the first quarter, and instead test Malcolm Jenkins and crew early, I think it greatly increases the chances of bigger runs later in the game when we need them.
The Saints have allowed 6 plays of 40 or more yards through the air this year (as have the Falcons), but I’ve noticed something very similar about a few of them. Most have come off of man coverage with Jenkins as the lone high safety, and if the QB is given any time the deep receiver can create at least 5 yards of separation between him and the nearest defenders. For example.
This play occurred last weekend in the 2 minutes leading up to half time. The Bucs are in shotgun, and the Saints are playing man-to-man coverage, with FS Jenkins (the red arrow) the only player off screen. The ball is snapped and Freeman has solid protection, at least 2 seconds to scan the field.
After holding Jenkins with a glance to the far sideline, Freeman passes it deep downfield (the ball is circled) to Dezmon Briscoe, who (as you can see from the black lines) has at least 5 yards separation from any defender. Malcolm Jenkins eventually makes the tackle at around the 35 yard line, resulting in a Bucs gain of 46 yards.
This is not an isolated incident however. Here we can see a similar incident, from the Rams shock victory over the Saints two weeks ago.
This play occurred on the first Rams possession of the game. A.J. Feeley has the Rams in a completely different formation (3 TE, 1 WR, 1 RB, QB under centre) when compared with the previous example, but a similar defensive structure is in place (Jenkins the lone high safety, with the rest in man coverage). Again the ball is snapped and there is enough protection for Feeley to complete his drop back. The ball is thrown in the direction of Brandon Lloyd on the sideline.
As you can see, there is again at least 5 yards of separation on either side. Feeley criminally underthrows the football, but even still the ball is only tipped with a full stretched finger-tip effort from Jenkins, despite being thrown at least 5 yards behind Lloyd. The pass results in an incomplete, but a slightly better thrown ball would have resulted in a completion 9 times out of 10. Even with an underthrown ball, the defence had no chance of a pick.
Say what you will about Matt Ryan’s downturn in production this year, but we can all agree he can still read defences like he always has. If Ryan can recognise the man coverage, and let Julio or Roddy know that the deep ball is on, we could see some big gains through the air early, which softens up the line of scrimmage for Turner, Snelling, Jacquizz and Tony G.
Utilise our nickel package: You could argue the pass defence as a whole has been a disappointment for the Falcons for what seems like forever, yet I would argue that our woes mainly come from a lack of cover in the middle of the field. The number of 3rd and longs converted to the sideline seems, at least in my mind, to be far less than the number of passes over the middle to the central weak spot of our zone. Drew Brees has had 379 passing attempts this year (Ryan has 276), so there won’t be another big test to our pass d like this for a long time. The addition of Kelvin Hayden and James Sanders since the last meeting should help the team deal with the slot threat of Lance Moore and the star TE Jimmy Graham. Spoon has been a beast recently, and has definitely held his own in pass coverage. We’ll need all of them this week. The middle of the field has been our week point for a while now, and since Lance Moore torched us in the Dome last year I’ve become far more aware of our deficiency against the slot receivers. While Brees loves to spread the ball, if we can make him force throws to Brent Grimes, or hold the ball for a little longer than he’d like, by taking away the middle of the field, it can only be a huge boost to our chances.
Control the clock: When I think Falcons football I think long drives, power running and holding the ball. The Mike Smith Falcons have always been about time of possession, and restricting the oppositions’ chances by restricting the number of plays they can get away. Interestingly enough, however, the Saints actually average a higher T.O.P than Atlanta this year, by just shy of a minute. Whilst not a huge difference, it does indicate the importance of possession. Both sides, despite one being pass oriented and the other being all about the run, are winning games through time consuming drives. If we can control the clock, be it through the ground game or just making the most of our third down play, then we limit the damage Brees and co can do to us offensively.
The Saints have run 638 offensive plays, good for most in the league, and average 6.3 YPP (6th in the league). Instead of trying to defend the Saints on offense for a full game, our focus should be to only allow the Saints offense out there for brief periods. If we can force takeaways, 3 and outs, punts or just go on multiple 7-8 minute drives, then it will set us up in numerous ways. Our defence will remain fresh, whilst there’s gets more and more stretched (opening up Turner late in the game), whilst Brees (averaging 41 attempts per game) has less chance to air it out and hurt us in the passing game. While I wouldn’t say it is exclusively the most important factor of this game, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that whoever wins the T.O.P wins the contest.
This is the big one. A win here will catapult us to the top of the NFC South, with a game and a tiebreaker in hand, while a loss doesn’t exactly derail the season, but puts the division race firmly in the favour of the Saints. I cannot describe how excited I am for this one, and to see what we can do back in the Dome after a few weeks on the road. I don’t want to be thinking predictions at this point, but having seen the ferocity of the recent divisional matches I think we can all look forward to a really entertaining Sunday. Lastly, I have final exams the week starting Monday (the football airs live Monday at 2am here) so unfortunately I doubt I’ll be able to spend the game with you all on the Falcoholic, but be sure to keep the faith right til the end – I think this one goes down to the wire. Don’t forget to check out dunlagh’s article here and finally, go Falcons!