The national spotlight will be on the Atlanta Falcons, which doesn't happen very often, given the team's recent struggles.
When it does occur, the NFL tends to pair them against their bitter rivals. Any game against New Orleans will always add extra intensity for both teams. Unfortunately for the Falcons, that intensity was ruined by a fumble and botched snap in the red zone last season, but this is a new year.
They will need to be wary of a desperate Saints team. After losing two winnable games, New Orleans knows that their schedule will get more difficult. Starting off the season with three losses against non-playoff teams (from last year) will likely indicate a long season ahead. Unlike last season, Atlanta won't be complacent. They face three upcoming stout defenses, including two West Coast trips.
This isn't a standard divisional game. Both teams face daunting tasks in the next month. Whoever comes out on top earns some leeway and momentum headed into October. Here are five things to watch for on Monday.
Covering the middle of the field
Derek Carr settled for check downs on several occasions last week. The Falcons' secondary did an excellent job limiting Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree. That reduced Carr to relying on underneath passes. It didn't prevent him from having great success, as Oakland's offense was gaining seven to nine yards per play.
Deion Jones and Sean Weatherspoon lined up ten yards away from the line of scrimmage in some instances. Without any pressure on Carr, it put them in precarious situations, which led to Oakland thriving on quick passes.
Sean Payton is one of the top offensive masterminds in the league. He will recognize the flaws in Atlanta's defensive alignments, which could lead to another long day. Willie Snead has been torching opposing nickel cornerbacks. Although Brian Poole has looked competent so far, Drew Brees is going to test the untested rookie.
Covering tight ends continues to be a problem, as the Falcons have already allowed three touchdowns to the position group in just two weeks. Coby Fleener has already struggled with drops and getting on the same page with Brees. Despite being always considered vastly overrated, Fleener can stretch the field and make big plays downfield. Snead, Fleener, and Brandin Cooks are going to test Atlanta in the middle of the field. Keanu Neal and De'Vondre Campbell could possibly return from their respective injuries to add much-needed speed on a rebuilding defense, at least.
New Orleans was fortunate to stay competitive against the New York Giants. Despite consistently moving the ball, Eli Manning and company committed three turnovers and didn't convert any of their three red zone opportunities. New Orleans' injury plagued defense deserves credit for being opportunistic, but they still allowed 417 total yards. It was somewhat reminiscent of last year's Thursday night game.
Atlanta's offense managed several productive drives, yet Tevin Coleman's fumble and a botched snap in the red zone played a significant role in last year's harsh defeat. The red zone issues are still lingering. Kyle Shanahan's play calling was brilliant against the Raiders except in the red zone. Designing three consecutive plays for Coleman wasn't productive. He was fortunate that Justin Hardy caught a deflected touchdown pass intended for Coleman.
The coaching staff needs to start featuring Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and Austin Hooper together. All three players can make plays in traffic. With Jones commanding double teams, Sanu and Hooper should receive more targets. In a most-likely shootout, the Falcons can't afford to waste red zone opportunities.
Targeting the unproven cornerbacks
The secondary wasn't looking promising in August, and New Orleans couldn't afford any long-term injuries. Rising star Delvin Breaux fractured his fibula, while P.J. Williams suffered a season-ending concussion against the Giants. It has forced rookie cornerbacks Ken Crawley and De'Vante Harris into playing significant snaps. Sterling Moore was recently signed to provide a veteran presence in a young secondary, but this is arguably the worst cornerback group in the league.
Play action has proven to be Matt Ryan's biggest ally this season. The coaching staff doesn't have to completely overhaul their successful game plan. Reducing rollouts and executing more traditional formations to get the wide receivers more involved would be ideal. As long as Jones can move effectively, he should have another big game. Ryan has missed Sanu on a few potential big plays. Their rapport is bound to improve, as Ryan is usually terrific at integrating new wide receivers into the offense. Aldrick Robinson and Taylor Gabriel both made key three-down receptions last week. After depending far too heavily on Jones last season, Ryan may have found a healthy balance. This should be another big game against New Orleans' decimated secondary.
For the past ten seasons, Falcon fans have been concerned about Drew Brees standing comfortably in the pocket and picking apart their defense. That hasn't changed, as the pass rush hasn't shown any improvement. Quinn mentioned that the pass rush is a "work in progress." The lack of results has come despite more blitzing against Tampa Bay (ten times) and Oakland (fifteen times).
Quinn's defenses aren't known for blitzing. When you have Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, a four-man rush is more than enough. Quinn has a massive challenge on his hands, but Brees doesn't handle pressure like he once did. Steve Spagnuolo's defense created two sacks and six hits last week. His blitz packages flustered Brees, which led to him completing just two of ten passes thrown over ten yards in the air and outside the numbers, according to Pro Football Focus.
The Falcons can't depend on four man rushes until Dwight Freeney and Vic Beasley start generating more consistent pressure. Brief glimpses aren't enough for a team starting multiple rookies in their back seven, unfortunately. Safety Landon Collins caused havoc on blitzes last week, so designing blitzes for Kemal Ishmael or Neal could spring a game-changing play or drive-killing sack.
Containing Cameron Jordan
Jordan has developed into one of the most versatile defensive lineman in the league. He lines up as a defensive end in their base package, before moving inside on passing downs. Jordan uses his long arms with an explosive first step to manhandle opposing offensive lineman. If the Falcons weren't fumbling in the red zone a year ago, Jordan was getting into the backfield. He contributed three sacks, three tackles for a loss, and four hits in last year's home victory.
The Pro Bowl defensive lineman primarily lines up on the left side, which will match him against Ryan Schraeder and Chris Chester. His long arms have given Schreader problems against the run. That should be an excellent matchup, especially with Schraeder coming off a solid performance against Khalil Mack. The real concern is Jordan bull rushing Chester into Ryan, which he did successfully last season. According to Pro Football Focus, the aging right guard allowed one sack and three hurries last week. Gerald McCoy manhandled him in the second half as well. Jordan and Nick Fairley have formed a formidable partnership on the interior. The offensive line will need to be on their game, especially in a hostile environment.