We got to ask mortal friend/enemy Dave Cariello of Canal Street Chronicles five questions about the team we all love to hate this week, in what has become known as the Clash of Daves. You'll find his answers below. Be gracious.
Dave Choate The Saints had one of the greatest defensive turnarounds in league history a year ago, or at least it seemed that way. Do you anticipate some regression in this year's squad, or do you think the Saints made the improvements necessary to keep the good times rolling?
Dave Cariello: I don't expect any regression whatsoever. In fact, quite the opposite. I expect them to be even better. They're pretty much the same unit they were last year except they've added the NFL's best safety in Jairus Byrd. Key players Cam Jordan, Junior Galette, Akiem Hicks, Keenan Lewis, Curtis Lofton (remember him?), and Kenny Vaccaro (Matt Ryan remembers him) are all back this season. With an additional year to get comfortable with Rob Ryan's system, there should be no reason for regression. The only players they got rid of were Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins, who were weak links anyway. The only apparent weak spot for the defense is the second cornerback position and maybe inside linebacker.
Dave Choate: The one potential exploit I see for the Falcons is at cornerback, where it seems to me the Saints don't have a ton beyond Keenan Lewis. Will Julio Jones, Roddy White and company see plenty of safety help to combat that, or am I making too much of the potential weakness there?
Dave Cariello: You've been paying attention, Mr. Choate, and you are absolutely correct. The depth at cornerback behind Keenan Lewis leaves a lot to be desired. When the Saints lost Lewis to injury in the middle of their playoff game against the Eagles last year, the drop off was noticeable. Too noticeable. Patrick Robinson is penciled in as the second starting corner, which has a lot of fans crapping in their pants. I would expect Robinson to be covering Roddy White most of the time while Lewis is preoccupied with Jones. But safety Jairus Byrd has incredible closing speed and can cover a lot of field in a short amount of time. That should help. We even joke that Rob Ryan might have a "penny" package with just one cornerback and five safeties.
Dave Choate: Fantasy footballers and Falcons fans alike want to know: Is Mark Ingram finally for real? Do you anticipate there being a heavier focus on the run this season, or is going to be pass all day, everyday?
Dave Cariello: For the last three offseasons we've been hearing about how the Saints plan to run the ball the, yet it never actually displays itself on the field. Should they balance their offensive attack more? Absolutely. The numbers show they're at their best when that happens. But it's almost as if Payton can't help himself once the game starts and Brees keeps slinging it. So I'm not going to be fooled until the Saints make a believer out of me. But, yes, Mark Ingram looked great this preseason. Very, very good. It's just a matter of whether he's going to be fed the ball enough. If we're talking about fantasy football, I wouldn't start Ingram. Certainly not to start the season. I'd wait to actually see the direction the Saints offense takes before making any decisions.
Dave Choate: Drew Brees hasn't really shown any signs of slowing down. Do you believe he's going to start his decline phase at some point, or is his supporting cast and offensive line good enough to mask that even if he does?
Dave Cariello: Of course I believe he's going to start his decline phase at some point. He can't play at such a high level forever, right? Right!?!? Brees has said this summer that he feels he can play into his 40s. While that would be amazing, I don't want to get my hopes up. I don't think you'll see any chink in the armor this year, if that's what you want to know. I give him at least 3 more years of top quality quarterback play. As you mentioned, his production and his career could definitely be extended if the offensive line keeps him healthy and gives him time. In addition, the Saints could adjust their offense and become more a run-first team for added longevity.
Dave Choate: What are your expectations for 2014, this game and the next time these two teams meet? How do you have the NFC South shaking out?
Dave Cariello: As far as a final record, I think 11-5 is a pretty safe bet; I'd even venture to say 12-4 is a real possibility. Considering how well the Saints have done against the Falcons during the Sean Payton era, it's hard not to like their chances in both games against Atlanta. If I wanted to play it safe, I'd say the teams split their games but there's just no way the Saints lose both. I'm sure Falcons fans are going to disagree with this answer. Rightly so. The whole division could be tough. Obviously the Falcons should be better. I also see Tampa Bay surprising a lot of people. Meanwhile, I think Carolina will regress.
Check out Canal Street Chronicles for more this week!