Divisional games have finally arrived for the undefeated Atlanta Falcons. After going 5-1 against the NFC South last season, Dan Quinn's squad looks geared up to continue their winning ways. They will be facing a desperate New Orleans Saints team. At 1-4, Sean Payton is on the hot seat and his team is on life support
For the first time since 2012, Atlanta will be walking into the Superdome as clear-cut favorites. The talent discrepancy between both teams didn't apply on the field during that particular game. An excellent play by Jabari Greer ended Atlanta's undefeated quest in 2012. Three years later, a similar situation has arrived. Here are the key components to watch for during Thursday night.
Matt Ryan's response
Following his worst performance of the season, Ryan is the surprising headliner for this week. With Julio Jones clearly not at 100 percent, Ryan will need to adjust accordingly. He still seems to be adjusting to Kyle Shanahan's offense based on his footwork and timing issues. The franchise quarterback was frantic inside the pocket against Washington, failing to step into throws that sailed wayward, nearly intercepted, or were eventually intercepted. Charles McDonald broke his issues down brilliantly.
Over the past five years, Ryan has gone 4-6 against New Orleans. Atlanta simply didn't have the talent to beat New Orleans in some matchups (2011 and 2013 specifically). It would be harsh to criticize Ryan for that record, but he hasn't exactly taken charge against Steve Spagnuolo or Rob Ryan's suspect defenses. Besides his incredible opening weekend performance last year, Ryan has been somewhat underwhelming against New Orleans.
It should only take 24 to 27 points to beat Sean Payton's limited squad. The landscape within the NFC South appears to have changed drastically, Avoiding turnovers and utilizing play-action effectively will be essential for Ryan to verify Atlanta's supremacy over New Orleans.
Containing C.J Spiller has to be a top priority
That may sound strange, considering Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson are receiving far more reps than him.The former first-round pick has only been a role player, but his snaps will have to increase at some point this season. New Orleans lacks explosive play-makers with defenses limiting Brandin Cooks to underneath routes. Sean Payton has done a poor job of making personnel decisions over the past few seasons, but that shouldn't interfere with his ability to devise proper game-plans.
One major Achilles heel for Atlanta's defense has been their inability to cover running backs out of the backfield. They did a decent job against Chris Thompson last week, but Darren Sproles and Lance Dunbar torched them repeatedly. Justin Durant's absence will cause Joplo Bartu and Nate Stupar to rotate on a frequent basis. Payton could end up utilizing Spiller in a similar capacity to Sproles and Pierre Thomas. With Desmond Trufant locking down one side and Robert Alford continuing to make strides, attacking the middle of the field seems to be their best proposition. Spiller has obvious breakaway speed and can make defenders miss on a consistent basis, and the Falcons will have to account for him at all times.
The Devonta Freeman show hits primetime
The NFL's rushing touchdown leader returns to the place where he first emerged. Freeman ignited the Falcons in a low-scoring game that eliminated the Saints from playoff contention with a 31-yard touchdown run last year in New Orleans. That run propelled Atlanta towards taking over the second half and eliminating their arch nemesis. After Steven Jackson struggled to break long runs, Freeman juked past Terrence Frederick and brought an explosive element to a dreary running game.
With Jones suffering from a hamstring injury, Atlanta may have to be completely dependent of Freeman for one more week. It has been proven that the second-year rising star can carry a hefty workload. His pass-catching ability gives Ryan a much-needed check down option as well. Freeman has become the first versatile workhorse back on Atlanta's roster, since Dunn's departure in 2007. After running all over three above-average run defenses, Freeman looks set to take advantage of the New Orleans "fresh made Wonder Bread" defense.
A dependable second receiving option will need to emerge
Although Freeman is more than capable of carrying the load, he may have to block more than usual. Rob Ryan won't hesitate to dial up blitzes to stimulate a lackluster pass-rush. That will lead to one-on-one opportunities for wide receivers not wearing number eleven. One glaring concern from last Sunday was Roddy White's inability to create separation. White has been in the news over the past week for making comments about not being targeted enough.
Unfortunately, the four-time Pro Bowler hasn't been able to get open very often this season. When throwing to White, Ryan's quarterback rating is an abysmal 34.1. His two receptions on critical scoring drives in the second half against Washington could give him much-needed confidence. With Jones ailing, Leonard Hankerson and White will need to step up, as well as Jacob Tamme. Tamme should find similar success against New Orleans, although it will be on mostly hook or out routes. White, Hankerson, Nick Williams, and possibly even Justin Hardy will need to step up to maintain Atlanta's winning streak.
Pass rush will need to replicate last year's performance
After an excellent preseason, the defensive line hasn't necessarily carried their production into the regular season. Eli Manning's quick release and Dallas' outstanding offensive line are valid defenses for a lack of pressure. Only recording one sack, three hits, and ten hurries (Pro Football Focus Premium Stats) on thirty two pass attempts from Kirk Cousins is disappointing. O'Brien Schofield has been a non-factor as a pass rusher throughout the past three weeks. Adrian Clayborn has flashed on occasion, while Vic Beasley has faced a gruesome row of top-tier left tackles.
Besides Freeman's touchdown run in 2014, nothing was more shocking than a non-existent pass rush coming to life and hitting Brees on a frequent basis. A unit featuring Kroy Biermann as their main pass rusher recorded a total of six sacks, five hits, and fifteen hurries (Pro Football Focus Premium Stats). The entire left side of New Orleans' offensive line is banged up with Terron Armstead and Tim Lelito not playing.. This has to be an excellent opportunity for the pass rush to start crafting more stunts and winning one-on-one matchups on third down.