It's the week all NFL players and fans have anticipated since February: The opening week of the 2013 NFL season. The Atlanta Falcons are coming into one of the most anticipated seasons in franchise history and their first game is a huge early season test against their division foe and a team who the Falcons have lost seven of the last ten games to, the New Orleans Saints.
New Orleans is looking to bounce back from a forgettable 2012 season in which they lost head coach Sean Payton for the year due to the Bounty Gate scandal, which led to a 7-9 season in which their defense surrendered the most yards in NFL history (7,042) yards. Earning a win against the Falcons would be a huge boost for New Orleans. The Falcons would love to earn a season opening victory in one of the most hostile environments around the NFL, the Louisiana Superdome.
Atlanta has lost their last six of eight games to the Saints, earning their lone wins in 2010 and 2012. To open up with a victory would send a statement for the 2013 season. I will explain the keys to victory, key match-ups and give a final prediction of the game.
KEYS TO VICTORY
1. Establish the tone early:
In last season's victory over the Saints, the Falcons jumped out to a 7-0 lead and it was a huge way to set the tone en route to their 23-13 win in November. Atlanta needs to establish momentum early and take a raucous SuperDome crowd out of the game. If Atlanta receives the ball first, the offense needs to deliver an early lead by running the clock and allowing their offense to gain crowd control. The biggest mistake would be to come away with nothing so it's imperative to make a statement early in the game on Sunday afternoon.
In last season's loss, the Falcons started out by setting the tone but could only take a 10-point lead which was wiped away in minutes and would come back and haunt Atlanta late in the game. If the Falcons are starting on defense, the tone must be established by either forcing a three and out or a turnover in order to prevent Drew Brees and the high powered Saints offense from cruising out to a quick start on Sunday afternoon.
2. Red-zone Efficiency:
This is usually the determining factor in the winner of a Falcons vs Saints game each season. Atlanta can't afford to have long drives come to an end with a field goal or no points at all especially on the road against the Saints. In last season's 31-27 loss in New Orleans, the Falcons settled for two field goals and missed on a fourth and goal conversion from New Orleans 1-yard line. The Falcons finished 3-6 that day when they entered the red-zone. With the addition of Steven Jackson, the Falcons look to open their playbook this season and assure that they are scoring touchdowns when Atlanta is driving into the red-zone.
The Falcons are well known for the high-powered passing attack and now with a sense of balance. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and the Falcons must figure out a way to address this one issue that's proven to be a determining factor in some of their previous losses. Atlanta's defense must also limit the Saints to field goals whenever they enter the red-zone because New Orleans offense will get their yards. However, it's vitally important for Atlanta to limit the Saints from scoring touchdowns when the situation is presented.
The Falcons were one of the best secondaries in preventing opposing passing attacks from scoring touchdowns last season and they will need to step up to the challenge and come up with some crucial stops. Atlanta must work on mixing their plays when they are approaching the end zone because at times, the Falcons will throw in situations where they should run the football and the same situation when they made decisions to run the ball instead of utilizing their passing weapons such as Julio Jones, Roddy White or Tony Gonzalez.
On Sunday, the Falcons could be in a position where scoring seven points will be the difference in the contest, especially if the Saints are scoring touchdowns and making Sunday's game very interesting. In the Falcons past two losses to the Saints, this was a major concern and played a critical point in the football game. It's vitally important that Atlanta scores touchdowns and keeps the pressure on the Saints offense throughout the football game.
3. Establish The Run with Steven Jackson:
In the Falcons' most recent victories, an effective ground attack was established and it helped Atlanta earn a win. In their win over the Saints last November, the Falcons managed to rush for over 100 yards to lead the way and this is a critical factor against New Orleans. An effective and clock-controlled ground attack will also help prevent the Saints offense from making a huge impact on the game and also, Atlanta can dominate the time of possession as well. Steven Jackson could provide the Falcons with a extra boost in order to win the game because the 30- year old running back have always caused fits for the Saints defense.
In his last three games against New Orleans, Jackson has averaged (128.6) yards per game, (5.8) yards per carry and a touchdown and if the Falcons can get a lift from the veteran running back, it will be a long day for the New Orleans Saints. Once the rushing attack gets going, many opportunities will open up for Matt Ryan and the Falcons passing game, which could cause a long day for the New Orleans Saints.
4. Defense Must Pressure Drew Brees:
The Falcons defense must step to the challenge and force Drew Brees out of rhythm in order to create some opportunities for Atlanta. In the 23-13 victory over the Saints last season, Atlanta applied pressure to Brees and forced him to throw five interceptions, which gave the Falcons a huge lift. Brees is one of the most efficient quarterbacks in football; however, when he's under pressure, his tendency to make mistakes increases and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan must apply blitz packages and present some disguised schemes in order to confuse New Orleans and force turnovers. Atlanta needs to win the turnover battle in order to earn a win in the SuperDome. On Sunday, the Falcons must control the tempo on offense and create havoc on defense including throwing different looks at Drew Brees.
This could be a critical point in whether the Falcons win or lose on Sunday, because if you're going to show Brees your defensive strategy, he can pick your defense apart. That was a huge reason why the Falcons struggled against him in former coordinator Brian Van Gorder's scheme, but thankfully Nolan's scheme is very unpredictable.
1. Falcons defensive line vs Saints offensive line:
This match up will be key for the Falcons as they will look to blitz Drew Brees and create sack opportunities for their defense. Atlanta is starting to come along and they will need for Osi Umenyiora and the Atlanta defensive front to step up and cause havoc against New Orleans offensive line, who will start a new left tackle after losing Jermon Bushrod to free agency. Mike Nolan needs to take advantage of this opportunity and try to disrupt the Saints offensive rhythm throughout the entire contest. The Saints offensive line finished with the seventh lowest total of QB sacks surrendered, but Charles Brown isn't proven and they will have the opportunity to test him.
2. Julio Jones vs Keenan Lewis/ Roddy White vs Jabari Greer:
The receiving match-ups will be a very intriguing test for the New Orleans Saints secondary because in their last trip to New Orleans, Roddy White and Julio Jones posted great numbers.
On Sunday, Roddy White will face a familiar face in Jabari Greer. Greer is arguably the best cornerback in the Saints secondary and have played Roddy White very well in their contests against each other in the past; unfortunately for him, he didn't have an answer for the Falcons receivers and struggled. Another intriguing match-up is newly acquired corner back Keenan Lewis facing against Julio Jones. Jones is a mis-match to majority of NFL defenses and that could be a target for Matt Ryan on Sunday.
3. Falcons secondary vs Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston:
The Falcons must be careful to find a way to contain Colston from having a huge game on Sunday. Colston have given the Falcons defense fits for years and Atlanta's defense must use their ability to disguise schemes to prevent New Orleans from getting their top receiving threat going. Another intriguing person is Jimmy Graham, who is Drew Brees security blanket and second most used target in New Orleans passing attack. Akeem Dent, Sean Weatherspoon and the rest of the linebacker corps will need to play tight coverage on the explosive tight end because if he's allowed to have his way, it could be a long game for the Falcons secondary on Sunday afternoon.
If the Falcons can limit one of the two targets, you're in a favorable position to earn a win against the Saints on Sunday. Graham has caused fits for the Falcons defense in the last few match-ups and the Falcons must prevent Drew Brees' top target from having a monster afternoon.
4. Tony Gonzalez vs Curtis Lofton: Part III
In the last two games against New Orleans, Tony Gonzalez has presented fits for the entire New Orleans secondary, especially former teammate Curtis Lofton. In the first game in New Orleans, Gonzalez posted over 100 yards and a score and in Atlanta, Gonzalez scored one of the best touchdown passes of last season against his former team-mate so expect Matt Ryan to test this match-up early and often. Expect Matt Ryan to target Tony Gonzalez and see if Lofton can contain the Hall of Fame tight end. Gonzalez could be due for a huge game in the Super Dome.
Falcons vs Saints games are tough games to predict because each game is usually a toss-up; however, I feel that Sunday's contest will be much different. I expect both football teams to compete and play great football for three quarters and in the final quarter, Atlanta will pull away with a long but efficient touchdown drive to seal the game. I'm also expecting 100 yard games from Steven Jackson, Julio Jones, and Roddy White, and for the Falcons to earn a statement win in the Superdome. Until next week, RISE UP and enjoy the start of a great 2013 season ahead!!!
FALCONS 35 SAINTS 24