It’s only fitting that the last regular season game in the GA Dome should come against the Falcons long-time rival in the New Orleans Saints. The first game between these two teams ended with a Falcons victory in New Orleans in a high-scoring affair. Most fans are expecting a similar game this go-round, though both teams look slightly different than they did in that first match-up. Here’s how they stack up in this final game of the season.
* Note: assessments based off of 2016 PFF scores for consistency
In the trenches
Tell me if you’ve heard this before: the Falcons offensive line has played very well this year. Alex Mack is having a Pro-Bowl caliber season and it can easily be argued that Andy Levitre and Ryan Schraeder should have joined him in those nominations. Jake Matthews has been up and down this year, but has generally been solid in both pass protection and run blocking. Chris Chester continues to be the lone “replacement level” player who the Falcons will likely look to replace in 2017. This unit excels when they can get the running game going, but can struggle when the Falcons offense gets to be too pass heavy. Regardless, this is a top-15 (and arguably top-10) offensive line and is one of the keys to the Falcons success this year.
The Saints have some very good players in the trenches. Nick Fairley can be a dominating defensive tackle at times, but is inconsistent in showing that. Rookie Sheldon Rankins has shown the ability to disrupt the pocket, partly evidenced by his 4 sacks in a limited number of games. He’s been inconsistent as well, however. Darryl Tapp is decent against the run and offers a little as a pass rusher, but is not a particularly intimidating player. Paul Kruger is not the pass rusher the Saints hoped he would be, but he can occasionally be disruptive. Cameron Jordan, however, is one of the best pass rushers in the league, even if his sack totals don’t reflect it. He’s consistently disruptive and is someone to keep an eye on. The Saints linebackers, though, are a different story. In the middle, Craig Robertson is firmly on board the struggle bus, while Dannell Ellerbe has definitely seen better days as well. Former Falcons Nate Stupar has proven to be pretty bad when given consistent snaps, struggling against the run and the pass.
The Saints have some intriguing players on their D Line, and Cameron Jordan is one of the biggest Pro-Bowl snubs this year. He has the talent to cause havoc for the Falcons offense almost by himself. Yet, the Falcons have gone against some of the best pass rushing units in the league and walked away with wins. This offensive line is able to do “just enough” to keep the pass rush at bay. I expect the Falcons will continue to use the running game to neutralize Cameron Jordan’s pass rush. If the first game is any indication, they shouldn’t have any problems doing so.
The skill positions
The Falcons offense would not be one of the best in NFL history if it weren’t for the skill position players. Matt Ryan is having a legitimate MVP caliber season and even after missing two games, Julio Jones is still one of the leading receivers in yards. Even if he’s not 100% healthy, he’s still a factor every time he’s on the field. Mohamed Sanu has grown into his role as a possession receiver, and has looked better as the season has progressed. Taylor Gabriel may be one of the fastest players in the NFL and is a consistent threat to take it to the house anytime he has the ball. Even depth guys like Justin Hardy, Nick Williams and Aldrick Robinson have proven to be capable contributors whenever they’re on the field. The Falcons tight ends are a weak spot, with Levine Toilolo scaring no one and Austin Hooper being a question mark for Sunday. Josh Perkins looked great on his TD catch against the Panthers, but is still inconsistent as a rookie. Falcons running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are a dynamic one-two punch that both factor into the running game and the passing game. Simply put, this is an incredibly stacked set of talent on offense.
The Saints secondary is not as bad as you would think. B.W. Webb has played well in spots this year and Sterling Moore has been playing around the league average as well. Remember, this Saints secondary held Julio to only one catch the last time they played. In nickel sets, safety Vonn Bell will come in and has played well, though he’s been stronger against the run than the pass. Jairus Byrd has finally gotten healthy and has really improved his play in recent weeks. He’s playing well against the pass and the run, though Devonta Freeman abused him in the last game. Roman Harper is definitely on the downside of his career, struggling against the run and the pass. This is not the worst secondary in the league, though there are no true stand-outs either (unless you count Byrd).
Simply put: the Falcons overwhelm teams with their talent and depth this year. Even when Julio missed games, this offense didn’t skip a beat. If you can’t consistently pressure Matt Ryan in the pocket, he’s going to find the open guy. This year, that “open guy” can be anyone up and down the roster it seems. Sorry Saints fans: on paper at least, the talent discrepancy is just too obvious.
This shouldn’t be a surprise, given the nature of the last game when these two teams faced each other. If anything, the Falcons have improved as an offense, with guys like Taylor Gabriel stepping up and Mohamed Sanu becoming more consistent as a possession guy. So long as the Falcons offensive line can hold up on Sunday, the Saints defense just doesn’t match-up well with the Falcons offense. Really, few defenses in the league do. For a defensive unit that is still in the bottom 5 against the run and pass, I expect the Falcons offense to put up points on Sunday.