The long-awaited showdown is finally here. For the first time since 2011, the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints are playing well at the same time. One of the NFL’s most heated rivalries has taken a backseat in recent seasons. The fire seems to be reignited with both teams getting their act together. It only took two seasons for Dan Quinn to turn the Falcons into a championship-caliber team. After several forgettable seasons, Sean Payton seems to have found the right balance for a once one-dimensional team.
With major divisional stakes on the line, both teams will be in full attack mode. New Orleans can essentially eradicate Atlanta from challenging for the division title. On the other side, the Falcons can maintain control of their own destiny with a victory. Both teams will be getting their respective star corner back. There is an endless amount of talent between both offenses. For each defense to get their most reliable cornerback at full strength can prove to be a game changer. While two of the best running back tandems in the league will be playing on the same field, let’s not forget Matt Ryan and Drew Brees remain as the quarterbacks. A shootout appears to be imminent, although Thursday night football is always capable of producing unexpected madness.
Surviving the running back storm
Only Wade Phillips’ defense managed to contain the near-unstoppable running back tandem in New Orleans. With Adrian Peterson out of the picture, Alvin Kamara has been unleashed alongside the always reliable Mark Ingram. They are currently on pace to gain more than 3,000 total yards. Most opposing defenses have looked hopeless trying to stop them. As well as the Rams played, they didn’t come out unscathed. Kamara scorched them for 188 total yards and two touchdowns. No defender could stay in front of him, as the 2017 third round pick has established himself as the NFL’s most dynamic weapon. Shutting down Ingram and winning the time of possession battle helped the Rams prevail against a terrifying offense.
It’s going to be an uphill battle for the Falcons to find similar success. The defense continues to struggle getting off the field. They were on the receiving end of a brutal 15-play, 89-yard drive last week against the Vikings. It mostly comes from their inability to stop the run. Quinn’s heavy rotations didn’t prevent the front four from getting completely worn down. Although they’re currently ranked 18th against the run, it’s been a frustrating season for a defense that needed to get bigger and more physical. Grady Jarrett and Dontari Poe are coming off disappointing performances following a month of excellent play. The talented interior duo can’t allow Ingram to get to the second level. According to Pro Football Focus, Ingram is second in the NFL for most yards per carry after contact. He could feast on Atlanta’s undersized linebackers. Forcing New Orleans into third-and-long situations is their best hope towards limiting the powerhouse running back.
The other mega challenge involves containing Kamara. To put a special talent with an offensive mastermind like Sean Payton is borderline illegal. Not many coaches know how to use a multi-dimensional player better than him. Kamara is averaging over eight yards per touch. The last player to average over seven yards for an entire season was Darren Sproles. Payton’s knack for designing plays to give ball-carriers space in the open field is remarkable. It allows Kamara to produce explosive plays with ease. His speed immediately jumps out, which isn’t surprising based on his metrics. Next Gen Stats charted Kamara as the fastest running back in average speed at the line of scrimmage.
Combine his explosiveness with the ability to break tackles (most since Week 5) and defensive coaches begin to lose sleep. Deion Jones is normally responsible for handling most of the coverage responsibilities against running backs. They will need to provide some support, as Kamara has left linebackers in the dust all season. It’s practically impossible to devise a game plan to stop him. Besides keeping the ball away from New Orleans, forcing third-and-long situations and making open field tackles are the most realistic ways to slow Kamara down.
Utilizing your own special running backs
While New Orleans leans on their running back duo and takes the league by storm, the Falcons haven’t quite found the right balance yet. Steve Sarkisian’s strong commitment to the running game should merit strong performances. It hasn’t materialized into many memorable games. This isn’t strictly based on Sarkisian’s questionable play calling. Devonta Freeman’s concussion certainly threw a wrench into their plans. The offensive line has suffered some injuries and an overall drop off in play. These issues have culminated into a somewhat underwhelming rushing attack. They are too talented to be ranked eleventh in rushing yards per game.
Freeman looked like his normal self against Minnesota. To come back from a serious injury and play at a high level versus difficult opposition deserves appreciation. Freeman’s outstanding vision and cuts led to a quietly productive game. With a game under his belt, he should receive more than 12 carries. His usage will play a significant part in having the ball more than New Orleans. Not having Andy Levitre hurts, but Ben Garland is a suitable replacement at left guard. The coaching staff started using Garland in some of their formations against Tampa Bay. It represented a strong indication about the coaching staff’s respect for him, especially with Wes Schweitzer being healthy.
As New Orleans’ running back pairing steals headlines, it’s time for Atlanta’s combo to make their mark. Tevin Coleman should play an integral part in their approach. For all the changes in New Orleans, they still have one of the slowest linebacker groups in the league. Kyle Shanahan did a phenomenal job incorporating both running backs into the passing game last season. Freeman and Coleman combined for 296 total yards and four touchdowns against the Saints in an emphatic victory on Monday night. Sarkisian must design ways to get each running back involved. Despite all the backlash, the embattled offensive coordinator has shown improvement in recent weeks. His call to spring Coleman free on 4th down was brilliant. They will need to create explosive plays like that one. It’s not about keeping pace with New Orleans. Setting the pace should be their motive. That starts with using their own dynamic running back tandem.
Another stern test for Julio Jones
It was a largely forgettable performance for Jones against Xavier Rhodes and Minnesota’s disciplined secondary. What turned out to be a major dud could elevate another fantastic matchup on paper. Sarkisian is bound to make sure Jones gets more targets against New Orleans. Marshon Lattimore is a special talent, but they aren’t going to structure their game plan around a rookie. Sarkisian can’t afford to let him become an afterthought in a must-win game. For Jones to only get six targets would be malpractice. Whether it’s using him in the slot more often or implementing more trips formations, the superstar wide receiver must receive ten targets or more.
Lattimore is a legitimate star that embraces any particular matchup. Football Outsiders’ Derrik Klassen wrote a tremendous piece about the future defensive rookie of the year’s rise to prominence. Unlike Rhodes, Lattimore doesn’t rely on being physically overwhelming to lock down receivers. His nimble feet and ability to make receivers uncomfortable with proper positioning is something to behold. It’s also remarkable to see a rookie display such impressive awareness when handling different zone looks. Although he may not shadow Jones as much as Rhodes, Dennis Allen will make sure the Falcons’ game breaking wide receiver needs to beat the game changing corner, if he wants to take over this contest.
Takk attack takes center stage
The emergence of Takkarist McKinley has been one of the biggest bright spots for an inconsistent defense. After shining in short spurts earlier in the season, the rookie pass rusher has become more dependable. His snap count ranges between 20 to 30 reps a game. Quinn found the ideal balance for him to be effective off the edge. To keep him fresh helps the front four cause more havoc. It’s a big reason behind McKinley’s three-game sack streak, along with his impressive get off.
What makes the charismatic defender such a dangerous weapon comes from his versatility. He doesn’t need to be secluded on one side. They will use him on both sides, which can rattle offensive lines. Look at his sack against the Vikings. By pairing him with Adrian Clayborn, it caused Riley Reiff to become hesitant and lose any chance of obtaining leverage. FanRag Sports’ Jon Ledyard wrote a fantastic piece about McKinley’s productivity. As Vic Beasley continues to be grossly misused, he is stepping up at a crucial time. Tackles are having problems coping with his speed and power. McKinley isn’t afraid to get nasty either. That will be needed against standout tackle Terron Armstead and rookie Ryan Ramczyk.