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Falcons vs. Saints: Fascinating Four for Week 16

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Can the Falcons ensure their place in the playoffs and move one step closer towards challenging for the division crown?

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New Orleans Saints v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

For the third time this season, the Falcons are on the verge of going on a three-game winning streak. It’s been a wild year for Dan Quinn’s squad. As frustrating as they have been, their perseverance must be acknowledged. Not many teams can recover from losing four out of five games in the middle of the season. To win five out of their last six games vindicates what Quinn has been talking about for the past two years. This is a resilient group of players.

That will benefit them going into a hostile environment. New Orleans’ resurgence makes the Mercedes-Benz Superdome scary again. It hasn’t been viewed as an intimidating place to play since 2011. With their incredible running back tandem and emerging defense, the Saints are a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Securing their top spot in the NFL’s best division would be massive for their chances in January. The stakes couldn’t be higher for both teams. If the Falcons are going to make the playoffs, they’ll need to elevate their play on both sides of the ball against the upper echelon of the NFC.

A more consistent pass rush is necessary

One of the few disappointing aspects of the Falcons’ recent success comes from the defensive line’s volatile play. The recent stretch may not indicate their issues on paper. They managed to record six sacks in the last three games. Although it looks great to rank tenth in sacks, the front four isn’t generating enough pressure at the moment. Case Keenum was able to survey the field without any real concern in the second half. No defensive player touched Drew Brees in the first half. Despite playing behind multiple backups, Jameis Winston wasn’t under much duress in his best performance of the season.

Quinn isn’t known for dialing up exotic blitz packages. He prefers to rely on his front four. It’s understandable for him to believe in this philosophy. He has assembled a group of talented players on paper. They haven’t quite delivered after playing extremely well to start the season. Vic Beasley isn’t evolving as a pass rusher. If he can’t explode past opposing tackles, they are easily handling him. His lack of counter moves is a real concern at this point. As valuable as Adrian Clayborn is, his limited skillset makes him a strong complimentary piece at best. It’s difficult to gauge where Takkarist McKinley is at in the rotation. His playing time has surprisingly decreased over the past two games. This is a bizarre development based on neither game being one-sided. Most would expect McKinley to receive 20 snaps at minimum in a competitive game.

They will need all three pass rushers to be on their game. New Orleans is currently tied with the Los Angeles Chargers for the fewest sacks allowed. An offensive line featuring Terron Armstead, Max Unger, and Larry Warford gives them a top-five caliber unit. This will be a stern test for an inconsistent Falcons’ front four. Due to Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, they can’t afford to blitz very often. No offense executes screens better than the Saints. Whether it’s one of the previously mentioned edge rushers or Grady Jarrett, someone will need to emerge from a crowded defensive line rotation. If they can harass Drew Brees, good things are bound to happen. The eleven-time Pro Bowler is one of the worst quarterbacks under pressure this season, according to ESPN’s NFL Matchup.

Jones vs. Lattimore: Round Two

The first round delivered plenty of excitement. Marshon Lattimore wasn’t fazed by the most daunting matchup of his young career. The coaching staff didn’t waste any time putting him on Julio Jones. Instead of trying to mix up coverage schemes, they had the utmost confidence in their stud cornerback to shadow one of the most dominant receivers in the league. Jones did get the better of him. He caught four passes for 79 yards when Lattimore was covering him. It was still a valiant effort from the future defensive rookie of the year, considering he was still recovering from a serious illness.

Similar to the first matchup, there is an unfortunate caveat. Jones isn’t going to be 100 percent going into this game. He suffered an ankle injury on the second play of the game against Tampa Bay. It became noticeable as the game wore on. Jones couldn’t accelerate nor be his usual attack-minded self. Look no further than his inability to come down with a sure touchdown in the third quarter. Despite his issues, Jones is accustomed to playing in pain. He is also capable of defying the odds in big games. The superstar wide receiver re-aggravated a toe injury against Seattle last season. There was genuine concern about his effectiveness heading into the NFC Championship. He responded by catching nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns against Green Bay to put the Falcons in the Super Bowl.

Time will tell about the severity of Jones’ injury. Facing Lattimore presents a physical challenge. Both players engaged in some pretty intense battles. It translated into three penalties between them, as Lattimore was penalized twice for holding. Jones’ knack for exploding out of breaks and selling double moves can cause problems for the aggressive young star. Despite showing tremendous ball skills, Lattimore does get grabby when facing bigger receivers. It’s going to be a fantastic duel that will answer some questions. Is Lattimore a top-five cornerback as some already suggested? Can Matt Ryan connect with Jones after posting a 31.4 passer rating when targeting him in the last three games? Something has to give between two Pro Bowlers. Let’s get ready to rumble.

Support for scrutinized Ryan

If Jones is going to win his colossal matchup, Ryan will need to throw the ball better. The franchise quarterback has dealt with some tribulations this season. Despite struggling during Atlanta’s three game losing streak, his accuracy (not involving passes over 20 yards) was relatively fine. That hasn’t been the case recently. Ryan’s completion percentage has been under 60 percent in the last three games. For the Falcons to win two out of three is an encouraging sign about their outlook. Ryan is too talented and experienced for his recent subpar play to linger on into a crucial two-game stretch.

What can’t be ignored about Ryan’s decline in production involves his supporting cast letting him down. Atlanta is currently ranked second behind San Francisco for the most drops in the league. While Austin Hooper gets criticized for his underwhelming play, there are three other players with more drops. Jones’ seven dropped passes leaves him tied for second in the league. The usually sure-handed Mohamed Sanu has four drops, along with Devonta Freeman. Jones and Freeman dropped passes that should have went for big gains last Monday night. If they are going to clinch a playoff spot, scoring 30 or more points will likely be required. Winning the time of possession battle and not committing self-inflicted mistakes are essential for them to prevail in New Orleans.

Containing Cameron Jordan

The always productive yet somehow under appreciated defensive lineman is having another stellar season. With New Orleans’ defense playing like a respectable unit for the first time in years, Jordan will earn defensive player of the year consideration. Any defensive lineman that puts up a “triple double” deserves to be one of the favorites. Jordan batted down four passes at the line of scrimmage against the Jets. It pushed his passes defensed total to twelve on the season, which is more than players such as Patrick Peterson and Xavier Rhodes. A stat line of ten sacks, thirteen tackles for a loss, and twelve passes defensed validates his status as a total nightmare.

Jordan didn’t record a sack in their last meeting, but still caused plenty of havoc. According to Pro Football Focus, Jordan produced five pressures against the Falcons’ offensive line. Dennis Allen moves him around to create confusion and exploit mismatches. It allowed Jordan to bully Ben Garland at times, which led to two hits and drawing a holding penalty. The potential return of Andy Levitre couldn’t be happening at a better time for the Falcons. Every offensive linemen needs to be aware of Jordan based on his versatility. Whether it’s chipping him outside or doubling him inside, they need to structure their protections around stopping him. Jordan is a game wrecker. His three-sack performance started their downfall in 2015. They can’t allow him to destroy them again.