The first clash with our hated rival is finally here, as the 9-3 Saints come to take on the 7-5 Falcons in Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Thursday Night Football. This is shaping up to be a must-win game for the Falcons, who can only afford to lose one more game in their final stretch if they want to keep their playoff hopes alive. With another game against the Saints on the docket in Week 16—this time in New Orleans—it’d be best to save that loss until then.
Needless to say, a win here would go a long way to keeping the Falcons in the playoff mix. Let’s take a look at some of the Falcons you should keep an eye on during Thusday Night Football.
G Ben Garland
With starting LG Andy Levitre out for this contest, reserve C/G/DT/ST extraordinaire Ben Garland will be filling in. Against the Vikings, Garland had a few magnificent reach blocks in the run game. He also didn’t have any major breakdowns in pass protection, which will be important against a dangerous Saints’ pass rush.
Garland has proved his versatility time and time again, and now his starting ability on the offensive line will be tested. Establishing a strong ground game and giving Matt Ryan time to throw will be imperative if the Falcons want to get an all-important win on Thursday Night Football. Keep an eye on Garland to see how he holds up—if he’s truly a starting caliber player, that makes things potentially very interesting in 2018 for Atlanta.
The Falcons front seven
The unit with the biggest test in this game will undoubtedly be the front seven of the Falcons defense. New Orleans’ offense no longer runs through Drew Brees and the passing game, but through the RB tandem of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. Atlanta must come prepared to stop—or at least slow—the Saints’ dynamic rushing attack.
Preventing yards after contact and shutting down passes to the RBs quickly are the keys to stopping this offense. New Orleans is actually pretty average at converting third downs—getting the Saints offense into 3rd and 3+ is the key to preventing long drives. The DTs and LBs will have to play one of their best games of the season to prevent New Orleans from building an insurmountable lead and bleeding tons of clock.
QB Matt Ryan
Ryan had one of his weaker games of the 2017 season against the Vikings, but that’s not entirely unexpected when playing against one of the best defenses in the NFL. He’ll have a decidedly easier task this week against the Saints, who haven’t been the dumpster fire we saw in 2016 but haven’t been a particularly good unit either. New Orleans should be getting back impressive rookie CB Marshon Lattimore, and he’ll have a very difficult test coming off his injury against Julio Jones.
Ryan needs to be sharp on Thursday night if the Falcons are going to beat the Saints. The best defense against New Orleans’ rushing attack is to put points on the board. Forcing the Saints to pass more than they’d like is the exact recipe we saw the Rams use to perfect effect. If Ryan can orchestrate a few impressive early drives and keep the offense rolling throughout, the Falcons should have a good chance of pulling off the victory.
RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman
The other key to defeating the Saints’ offense is to keep them on the sideline. New Orleans has been about average against the pass, but they’ve been downright abysmal against the run this season, allowing 4.6 yards per carry (29th in the NFL). Establishing the run early and taking plenty of time off the clock with long, sustained drives will be one of the key pieces of the Falcons’ strategy on Thursday night.
We saw Freeman running very well against the Vikings dominant run defense last week, and Coleman proved he could carry the load on his own in Freeman’s absence. Together, they should be able to provide a consistent ground game for Atlanta against a pretty poor run defense. Some passes to the RBs out of the backfield also wouldn’t be so bad, Sark. Please?
SS Keanu Neal
Neal has quickly emerged as one of the best players on the Falcons defense. He’s a versatile defender—a punishing hitter with a physical tackling style that holds up well in the box, but also a rangy and impressive coverage safety with great instincts. He’s limited and even erased some TEs this season, but his role will likely be more multiple against this dynamic Saints’ offense.
Neal will be one of the primary defenders in charge of shutting down the Saints’ rushing attack, but I have a feeling that Atlanta may also put Neal’s coverage ability to good use. The Falcons’ LBs have struggled mightily in coverage on RBs, so why not try Neal there instead? With Coby Fleener essentially an afterthought in the New Orleans offense, Neal would likely be better served picking up Kamara or Ingram out of the backfield. It’s just one of many wrinkles the Falcons could throw out in what is shaping up to be a must-win game.
What are your thoughts on the Falcons’ Thursday Night Football match-up with the Saints? Who are some players you’ll be watching closely? Any match-ups that have you more concerned?