Five questions with Dave Cariello at Canal Street Chronicles? Absolutely.
Dave Choate: The turnaround for this defense has been remarkable. How much of it is due to new players and players maturing and how much of it is due to Rob Ryan's influence?
Dave Cariello: It's definitely both but I'd say most of it is because of Rob Ryan. It's got to be because if it were simply players maturing, I don't think the improvement would be this complete and this drastic. His scheme has been a very good fit for the Saints and their defensive personnel. Obviously the addition of players like Keenan Lewis and Kenny Vaccaro have made a difference, but you could argue it was Ryan who brought in those players in the first place. In the end, it really all does point back to Ryan. We love him here in New Orleans; he's already become a local legend.
Choate: It looks like Mark Ingram may be turning the corner. Do you think he's finally turning into the feature back many envisioned, or is this a bit of a fluke? Will the Saints use him often against the Falcons?
Cariello: Woah, buddy! Sounds like you've contracted a serious case of INGRAMANIA! (Editor's Note: Not a real disease.) Slow your roll, though, because you're getting carried away with yourself.
I think most Saints fans, myself included, are not ready to "crown his ass" just yet. Not to take anything away from his brilliant performance against the Cowboys but he's got to put together one or two more games like that before he's respected fully. Plus, let's not forget that it was Cowboys.
To be honest, I actually think Ingram's emergence has more to due with the improved play of the offensive line than any sort of revelation by the running back himself. If the offensive line continues to play well, I think any of the Saints running backs will look good if they're given the chance by Payton.
Choate: The Falcons know they'll have to gameplan effectively for Jimmy Graham, but who else do they need to watch out for? Is Kenny Stills the biggest threat on the field with his deep speed?
Cariello: You can gameplan for whoever you want, certainly Jimmy Graham is a good start, but you know how deep the Saints offense is and that they can beat you so many different ways. If you take one thing away, they'll attack with something else. Marques Colston is still reliable and coming off a good game against the 49ers. Lance Moore has done well against you guys in the past. Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles are dual threats running and catching. Hell, even Robert Meachem has come back from the dead and is contributing significantly! And, yes, now they've added Kenny Stills as their deep threat field stretcher in place of the departed Devery Henderson. But Graham still remains the main priority.
Choate: Give us a couple of players the Falcons might be unfamiliar with who may have outsized impacts on the game?
Cariello: Second-year cornerback Corey White has really come on strong the last few weeks. He's definitely ascending. Last game against the 49ers he got an interception that he coulda/shoulda/woulda run back for the touchdown, except he fumbled it on the 1-yard line. White was the Saints' 5th round draft pick out of Samford last year. He has been the nickel behind Keenan Lewis and Jabari Greer but still getting regular playing time because of Rob Ryan's heavy defensive back rotation. With Greer out for the season now, White will now move up to the starting spot so you'll definitely be seeing him a lot Thursday night.
Choate: What are your expectations for the game, and ultimately, the season?
Cariello: I'm actually nervous about this game. I think the Saints might actually lose. It's got trap written all over it and it's exactly the type of game they've lost in the past. They're coming off a very tough, physical game against the 49ers and have only three days to prepare for it. If you'll remember this exact same situation last year, the Saints played the 49ers then had to face the Falcons on Thursday night. They lost.
For the season, the future is bright. Their MNF game against the Seahawks is going to be huge, as is their two remaining matchups against the Panthers. I definitely expect the playoff berth, hopefully a first-round bye and a deep run into at least the NFC Championship. Getting that home-field advantage will be crucial.