The Falcons are playing the Saints Thursday night. Nobody's really expecting much, but everyone's secretly hoping the Falcons suddenly play like world beaters and send the Saints home unhappy. Okay, it's not a secret.
In order to win this game against a tough (urp!) opponent, the Falcons will have to play at a high level. They're catching the Saints at the right time, after a slugfest of a game against the 49ers and on a short week, but this year's Saints team is loaded with talent. The Falcons will have to reverse the last four weeks of terrible trend lines and get out there and play some winning damn football, damnit.
Please note that I will not be doing a "One Falcon to Watch" for the first time all season, because in recent weeks I seem to be cursing those Falcons. Forgive me my superstitions.
Matt Ryan vs. Saints Cornerbacks
The Saints have a rough pass rush thanks to Rob Ryan and a greatly improved front seven. What they don't have after injuries struck the secondary is a great...secondary. Yup.
Aside from rookie Corey White, who Dave Cariello singled out for praise when I asked him about the Saints on Wednesday, and safety Kenny Vaccaro, this is not an elite secondary. Teams willing to attack them through the air can and have found some success. The problem, of course, is that you have to be able to find success on the defensive side of the ball, as well. But in terms of quality coverage, this might just be Ryan's shot to get his season back on track a bit.
Of course, it may not matter. Keep in mind that over the last four weeks, the Falcons twice played great secondaries (Seattle, Arizona), one played a quality one (Tampa Bay) and once a pretty middling one (Carolina). The common thread for all four of those teams was a strong pass rush, and that could be what kills Ryan. If he can find time, he's got a shot.
Scott Carasik at Bleacher Report did a good job breaking this down. To distill the numbers, DeCoud has allowed Brees to complete 19 of 26 passes against him with two interceptions, two touchdowns and two pass deflections during their eight meetings. That's a pretty high completion rate, and with DeCoud visibly struggling this season, it's hard to be optimistic.
Except! Except that DeCoud is powerfully motivated. Except that DeCoud has a history of being a ball-hawking safety even when he's making mistakes.This week, DeCoud gently fired back at critics via his Twitter account, alleging that fans don't know what's going on in the huddle and with the gameplan. While that's certainly true, there's no denying that DeCoud has had a subpar year against the pass, whether you go by watching him play or Pro Football Focus rankings, where he's 78th out of 85 qualifying safeties. He's better as a run stopper this season.
This would be a nice time to get back on track. A pick in this game would endear him to fans again, and helping to keep Jimmy Graham in check alongside William Moore and the linebackers would be huge. There has never really been a question of DeCoud's tools, just the on-the-field results. If the light bulb comes on, we'd all be happy.
Front Seven vs. Mark Ingram/Pierre Thomas/Darren Sproles
The best way to force Drew Brees into mistakes is to force him to throw, throw and throw some more. High volume is the bane of most quarterbacks, and even one as good as Brees isn't immune to that.
To do that, you have to stop the run. Mike Glennon was solid a week ago because the Falcons were getting gashed on the ground and he had time in the pocket. Shutting down the Saints' ground game would increase the chances of the Falcons forcing a turnover or just being able to better anticipate plays on a handful of drives, which could be the difference if this winds up being another close contest.
Of course, then the Saints might just throw a ton of screens and passes in the flat to Darren Sproles. Argh.
Mike Smith vs. Sean Payton
This hasn't been a battle Smith has won much during his tenure in Atlanta. Let's hope he wins this one. Debate the relative merits of these two coaches in the comments, if you would.