Dave Choate: So...this Saints season. What's gone wrong for New Orleans?
JR Ella: Where do I start? It's been so many things but really, we should have all seen it coming as far as the end of the 2013 regular season, when the Saints had the NFC South pretty much wrapped up, but then they let the Panthers take it from them by stumbling down the stretch. And since that road-playoffs win at Philly, it's been downhill. Bad draft picks, bad free agent pickups, aging stars (the biggest of all being Drew Brees) have all finally caught up with the Saints. This season and probably the next will be rebuilding years. In other words, I think the NFC South is going to be a two-team division race between the Falcons and Panthers for at least the next two years.
Dave Choate: I'm casting a wary eye in the direction of C.J. Spiller, who is deadly in space. The Falcons have been killed by speedy receiving backs thus far in 2015, so I'm curious to see how involved you think Spiller will be.
JR Ella: Spiller has been a bit of a mystery this season. Of course, he was injured during the offseason and has been eased into the running back rotation by the Saints' coaching staff. Against the Cowboys, he had pretty much no touches until the fourth quarter and overtime. Then every time he touched the ball late in the game, he gained positive yardage and eventually had an electric 80-yard reception for a touchdown to win the game. Then against Philadelphia, he was a complete non-factor.
So what will it be tonight? I suspect that on the fast turf of the Superdome, Payton and Co. will try to unleash him as much as possible. If the Saints want to have a chance to win this game, they'll need to score and score often and Spiller will have to be a contributor for them to achieve that.
Dave Choate: Defensively, how are the Saints going to attack Atlanta? The Falcons looked a little shaky against an attacking Washington defense on Sunday, but can New Orleans "bring the heat" and "stuff?"
JR Ella: Bring the heat. Rush the passer. Pressure the quarterback. I'm sorry I was daydreaming: what? These are terms unknown in these parts. The Saints have tried not to blitz too often in order to protect a very young, shaky and injured secondary. Now that cornerback Keenan Lewis and safety Jairus Byrd are back in the lineup and getting healthier, they may have to play mostly man-coverage (and pray) and send more rushers at Matt Ryan and live with the results. New Orleans' pass rush has been miserably inexistent, despite flashes here and there from Cam Jordan and rookie defensive end Hau'oli Kikaha, so my opinion is that Rob Ryan will have no choice but to try to live (and likely die) by the blitz tonight.
Dave Choate: Give us a couple of success stories we may not have heard much about thus far, particularly if those players might have an impact on the game?
JR Ella: There are three guys that are particularly giving the Saints' coaching staff and the fanbase a lot of hope for the future: middle linebacker Stephone Anthony, defensive end Hau'oli Kikaha that I mentioned earlier and cornerback Damian Swann. What's interesting is that all of them are rookies, hence the idea that the future is bright once they realize their potential. Anthony has taken the reins at middle linebacker from Curtis Lofton and has had some brilliant plays but also some missteps that are to be expected from a rookie. Kikaha is a guy with a non-stop motor and if anyone actually grazes Matt Ryan's jersey tonight, it's likely going to be him. Finally, Swann has been a revelation as the nickel cornerback spot. He's fearless and has great raw coverage skills. Unfortunately he might not play tonight after suffering a head injury against Philly last Sunday.
Dave Choate: Your prediction for this game, the Saints' season, and where Sean Payton and Drew Brees will be next year?
JR Ella: Drew Brees and Sean Payton will both be in New Orleans next year. For the first time in a while, the Saints actually had a really good draft in 2015. Andrus Peat, Hau'oli Kikaha, Stephone Anthony, Damian Swann, Tyeler Davison, Marcus Murphy have all made the team and contributed already. Cornerback P.J. Williams is on IR, otherwise he would've likely played too. I think that New Orleans will extend Brees and completely restructure his contract in a much more cap-friendly way. If the Saints can duplicate the early success of this 2015 draft next year (and they figure to have a pretty high draft selection) then 2016 and 2017 could see the Saints starting the march back to their winning ways of the Payton era as Brees plays his last two to three years in New Orleans in search of that elusive second Super Bowl championship. As for Payton, my thinking is that he'll be in New Orleans as long as Brees is the quarterback. Past that, all bets are off.
Tonight, I'm giving New Orleans about a 0.005% chances of winning (science!). I'm actually afraid it'll turn into a blowout and I can only hope it doesn't. The Saints can't stop the Falcons' offense and alas, they won't be able to score enough on Atlanta's revamped defense. I see the Falcons winning this one 34-17.