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Falcons opponent profiles: How to attack the New Orleans Saints

The Saints are at a crossroads.

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans Saints

2014 Record: 7-9
Key Additions: C Max Unger, RB C.J. Spiller, CB Brandon Browner, LB Dannell Ellerbe, CB Kyle Wilson, DE Anthony Spencer, T Andrus Peat, ILB Stephone Anthony, OLB Hau'oli Kikaha, CB Delvin Breaux
Key Subtractions: TE Jimmy Graham, DE Junior Galette, MLB Curtis Lofton, RB Pierre Thomas, WR Kenny Stills, LG Ben Grubbs

Falcons vs. Saints in 2014: Falcons 37-Saints 34, Week 1; Falcons 30, Saints 14, Week 16

The 2014 Saints were the logical culmination of years of cap wizardry by GM Mickey Loomis that brought them a Super Bowl win in 2009 and years upon years of success under Sean Payton. This was a team with genuine financial issues that nevertheless pulled the coup of landing safety Jairus Byrd, who should have been a stabilizing force in an otherwise suspect secondary.

Instead, Byrd was kind of bad before he was injured, the secondary (and the entire defense) were suspect at best, and the offense couldn't quite do enough to propel them beyond that. The Saints entered 2015 at somewhat of a crossroads, and Loomis steered into the skid by shipping off Jimmy Graham for the highly-regarded center Max Unger, signing scatback C.J. Spiller, swapping away the team's best deep threat for a bounce-back linebacker, landing huge corner Brandon Browner and picking up some very highly regarded rookies in the draft. On paper, while the loss of Graham hurts the offense immensely, this team has done a lot to pilot the offense into a new era as Drew Brees' legendary career winds down, and they've added a lot of capable bodies to the defense.

Of course, the team just cut Junior Galette, Ellerbe is arguably a downgrade from Curtis Lofton, the team's receiving corps and tight ends are littered with question marks, and the defense looks about as shaky as it ever has. There's a way forward for this team as a ground-first, opportunistic defensive team helmed by a still effective Brees and always wily Sean Payton, but there are legitimate holes all over the place, and a team that went 6-10 in the weakest division in football a year ago does not look demonstrably better in 2015, barring better-than-expected contributions from a returning Byrd, CFL product Breaux and the rookie class. With the Panthers at least standing in place and the Buccaneers and Falcons adding some talent, that's not a great spot to be in.

Still, these are the Saints, and I'll believe they're dead when I see that bloated black and gold corpse. What do the Falcons have to do in order to win out over New Orleans this season?

How should the Falcons attack them?

Dave Cariello, a friend and scholar who heads up Canal Street Chronicles, provided the following scouting report for the Saints.

We've only just started training camp so it's hard to tell exactly what type of team the Saints will be and which players will play an integral part. But we're bloggers that like to make stuff up and talk out of our ass so here we go...

As far as the Saints offense is concerned, I am expecting a much greater emphasis on the running game this year. In recent years, it's always been about Drew Brees and for opposing defenses, it's been about shutting Brees down. But after all the turnovers by Brees last season, I think Payton has realized maybe some of the load should be taken off Drew's shoulders. This year, I expect Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson to get a healthy dose of touches between the tackles and I expect C.J. Spiller to bring back that Reggie Bush/Darren Sproles scat back type of role on the outside edges. If I were a defense, I wouldn't focus just on Brees as they might have done in years past. When he does pass, however, I expect him to spread the ball around much more now that he doesn't have Jimmy Graham around as his go-to safety valve.

The Saints defense, on the other hand, is a big, old giant question mark thanks to a pretty significant off-season overhaul. The defensive line is pretty much the same, but the linebacking corps has been completely revamped. You're going to see a lot of new names there, including drafted rookies Stephone Anthony and Hau'oli Kikaha and free agent signee Anthony Spencer. The Saints have also made a bunch of hopeful upgrades at cornerback by adding veterans Brandon Browner and Kyle Wilson, CFL standout Delvin Breaux, and rookies Damian Swann, and P.J. Williams. I hate to be lame, but it really is difficult to tell just how all of these changes will pan out on the field of play. I think we'd be lucky if half of them ended up as significant contributors. Only time will tell if the Saints are heading in the right direction but there may very well be some growing pains in the first year of this defensive overhaul.

This all makes sense to me. Defensively, the Falcons have a job in front of them, because they need to hit and hurry Brees to keep him from finding guys like Brandin Cooks, but the trio of Mark Ingram, Spiller, and Khiry Robinson is sufficiently intimidating that they can't really pin their ears back on early downs. As always, the Saints offense is going to remain dangerous, even if the character of it hasn't changed. It'll take an aggressive yet balanced approach up front to manage that, even if the team has to cope with fewer quality receivers.

On offense, the path is easier. Unless the secondary finds itself early, the team needs to pepper in the ground game and just attack the Saints' corners with their array of weapons in the passing game to find at least some level of success. The middle of the line is much softer than it is for, say, Carolina and Tampa Bay, so the Falcons may want to try to establish the inside run early and often, as well. It's going to take the Saints coming up with turnovers to significantly slow the Falcons' offense, in other words.

Bottom line

The Saints are somewhat of an enigma. They have some exciting young pieces on defense and a potentially fearsome ground attack, but they've arguably depleted Brees' weapons and protection, and the overall picture on defense looks far from rosy. I'm not betting against New Orleans righting the ship—this is pivotal year for a team facing even more dire cap news a year from now, and everyone there is aware of that—but there's enough question marks here to make my prediction that they'll bounce back a shaky one.

How would you attack the Saints?