After going 1-5 in the division last year, Dan Quinn’s team has an opportunity to finish 5-1 in the NFC South. That’s a nice stat, even if their main goal is securing a first round bye.
Their improvement within the division deserves more recognition, though. If you can’t win divisional games, it will likely leave you watching instead of playing football in January. Between defeating bitter rivals in convincing fashion to going 6-2 on the road, the Falcons are clearly a different team compared to the past three years.
The New Orleans Saints present a formidable challenge. Drew Brees and company will test a young defense with their dynamic wide receiving corps. After being gashed for 442 total yards and 45 points in the previous matchup, their defense can’t possibly play any worse. It was an appalling performance, as Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for 296 total yards and four touchdowns. The defense has played better with Sheldon Rankins’ inclusion last month. How they fare against the best offense in the league should be important for this improving unit. Here are five things to watch for on Sunday.
Matt Ryan’s final regular season act
The excitement is building for the MVP candidate. He isn’t fading away like most analysts expected. By taking calculated shots downfield and not forcing throws, Ryan has produced on a weekly basis. With only seven interceptions in 15 games, this is his best touchdown to interception ratio ever. He hasn’t thrown less than ten interceptions in a season since 2010. Mike Mularkey’s scheme benefitted him that year, as the Falcons operated as a power-running offense. Riding behind Michael Turner and a nasty offensive line was their identity. Ryan has taken a more proactive approach during this memorable season, and he’s passing the ball better than ever.
In their first meeting, Ryan didn’t need to force anything against New Orleans’ abysmal defense. The dynamic rushing duo validated their case as the best running back combo in the league. Rankins’ absence was noticeable in the Saints’ soft interior line. According to NFL Network’s Alex Gelhar, the Saints have only allowed 74 rushing yards per game since the promising rookie returned from injury in Week 9. The Falcons offense shouldn’t fear anyone, but this could force Ryan into more third and long situations. That shouldn’t be an issue, especially with Taylor Gabriel and Aldrick Robinson establishing themselves as vertical threats in this near unstoppable offense. New Orleans usually brings the best or worst out of Ryan. How he remained composed against Carolina’s constant blitz packages bodes well for this matchup.
Containing Cameron Jordan
Similar to Greg Olsen and Mike Evans, Jordan is the one player that always needs to be accounted for during this particular matchup. Jordan has produced seven sacks in the last seven meetings. That includes a terrorizing three-sack performance on Thursday night football last season, where he brutalized Chris Chester and Ryan Schraeder. Jordan is easily one of the most versatile defensive linemen in the league. At 287 pounds, he is capable of rushing off the edge and lining up on the interior without any considerable drop off. Jordan is an athletic specimen with long arms and vicious hands. His durability is another impressive attribute.
The Times-Picayune’s Josh Katzenstein wrote an excellent piece about Jordan’s impressive season. Olivier Vernon is the only defensive lineman that plays more snaps than the Pro Bowl snub. Jordan continues to be a difference maker, despite playing 92 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. It’s something that Quinn should keep in mind for the forthcoming overhaul of the defensive line. His frequent rotations shouldn’t apply to every defensive lineman, if they are good enough for a sustainable amount of time. Only special players like Jordan and Vernon can handle this hefty workload.
With Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett emerging as reliable players, it’ll be interesting to see how they are utilized in 2017. For now, our attention should be directed towards another ferocious pass rusher. No right tackle is more battle tested than Schraeder, who has faced Khalil Mack, Von Miller, Cliff Avril, Melvin Ingram, Brandon Graham, and Justin Houston this season. How he copes with New Orleans’ lone defensive star will play a crucial role in a high-scoring affair.
Jalen Collins’ development
The enigmatic cornerback is coming off his finest game as a Falcon. Covering Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess proved to be a great matchup for him. Quarterbacks are heavily targeting Collins, since he replaced Desmond Trufant in the starting lineup. He was busy against Arizona, as Carson Palmer targeted him eleven times. According to Pro Football Focus, Cam Newton threw a whopping fifteen passes at his direction. Collins was rarely a step behind or out of position. If the former second round pick allowed a big play, it was from a rare perfect throw by Newton.
Collins will face a much stiffer challenge against New Orleans. Brandin Cooks, Michael Thomas, and Willie Snead are far more dangerous than Ted Ginn, Benjamin, and Funchess. Robert Alford shadowed Ginn for the majority of the game. Based on having a distinct speed advantage over Collins and Brian Poole, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him shadow Cooks. Sean Payton prefers to use Snead in the slot. Poole will likely cover him. That leaves Collins against Thomas, who is having a fantastic season. The six foot three rookie isn’t your typical tall wide receiver.
Thomas’ agility can cause issues in the open field, which Tampa Bay’s secondary endured last week. Unlike Benjamin and Funchess, he wins in traffic on a consistent basis as well. This is a huge test for Collins, as the playoffs are looming. He proved his value against one-dimensional wide receivers last week. Now he faces a diverse player, who is becoming Brees’ favorite receiving option.
Deion Jones’ rise
The rookie linebacker started gaining buzz following his performance against New Orleans on Monday night football. It wasn’t only his interception that had people salivating over his scorching speed. Jones was active in the running game and showcased his strong instincts. On a forgettable night for the defense, he shined on several occasions. Jones has developed into a far more consistent player over the past month.
Scouts raved about his speed and instincts. As much as they praised him for those qualities, they criticized his ability to get off blocks and consistency as an overall tackler. Jones makes up for his undersized frame with excellent awareness and technique. Look at this play against Carolina. He sheds Mike Tolbert’s block and brings down Cam Newton from a difficult angle. It was a phenomenal play by the promising middle linebacker.
Jones showed flashes from September to November. There has been more outstanding plays and fewer mistakes over the last four games. Joey Bosa is going to be the unanimous defensive rookie of the year. The former LSU Tiger will be the most impressive defensive rookie in the playoffs. They’ll need him against New Orleans’ heavy dosage of draws and screens
A highly probable shootout means the margin of error is smaller than usual. Brees suffered the harsh reality last time out, when Poole deflected a pass into Jones’ hands for a ninety-yard touchdown. New Orleans couldn’t recover from committing one turnover, which didn’t occur on a freak play. The Falcons’ offense was simply too dominant. While both defenses should fare slightly better, this game will fill up the scoreboard. Whoever protects the ball better will likely come out victorious. Based on Brees’ inconsistent performances on the road and Atlanta’s more consistent running game, you would have to favor the Falcons.
By forcing three fumbles and four interceptions over this three-game winning streak, the Falcons defense is starting to earn the opportunistic label. They’ve clearly benefitted against shaky quarterbacks. It’s still important for a young defense to make plays and gain confidence at this stage of the season. A future Hall Of Fame quarterback provides the perfect litmus test headed into January, where they could face Russell Wilson or Aaron Rodgers.
The pass rush will need to improve following a lackluster performance against Carolina’s below average offensive line. Brees has become more careless in recent years, particularly on the road. It will be on the pass rush to help create turnovers.