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Falcons vs. Saints: How the game will be won or lost

Can the Falcons keep pace with the hottest team in the league?

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NFL: Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

If it’s not the best rivalry in the NFL, it better be on your top five list. That’s a level-headed way of describing what Falcons-Saints means in 2018. It’s a rivalry fueled by hatred. From Sean Payton making sure Drew Brees broke Dan Marino’s passing yardage record in a one-sided beating on Monday night football to Roddy White not holding back about his disdain for New Orleans, there is a never a dull moment when these teams face each other. It doesn’t matter what their records are. Every game is going to be filled with bad blood and intensity.

Those are the positives in what appears to be a mismatch on paper. No team is playing better than the Saints at the moment. Brees continues to play at an MVP level, as his passing efficiency is simply outrageous this season. Combining his stellar play with one of the best running back tandems in the league, one of the best offensive lines in the league, and a near-unstoppable force in Michael Thomas makes New Orleans’ offense borderline illegal. This matchup is about as difficult as it gets for Dan Quinn’s group, especially in front of a raucous crowd geared up to see their team pounce on a wounded rival.

Facing an insurmountable challenge

With Deion Jones’ status still unclear, it’s difficult to find many positives about the Falcons’ defense going into this matchup. They’ve played poorly over the last two games after showing signs of life against the Giants and Redskins. When it seemed like they turned a corner in making open field tackles at the first opportunity and being more organized in the secondary, it proved to be nothing more than a mirage.

Only allowing 22 points doesn’t represent a decent performance against. They were extremely fortunate that Cole Beasley dropped a wide-open touchdown and Desmond Trufant wasn’t flagged for holding in the end zone. Those minor setbacks didn’t stop the Cowboys from imposing their will in victory.

Transitioning from facing an extremely bland offense to an unpredictable juggernaut in four days isn’t ideal for any coaching staff. Although there is obvious familiarity between both coaching staffs, there are going to be new wrinkles in New Orleans’ game plan. A weapon like Alvin Kamara needs to be utilized in countless ways. Even if the dynamic weapon isn’t the central piece of Payton’s game plan, his ability to make defenders miss in the open field is something that will be heavily utilized, especially against a defense notorious for allowing yards underneath. They’re also known for missing tackles, which doesn’t bode well against the ferocious Mark Ingram.

This is the type of games the Falcons desperately need Jones available. It’s not only because of his past success against New Orleans. How he covers so much space across the field is essential for a matchup like this.

Brees throws between the numbers more than most quarterbacks. From watching how poor the Falcons’ linebackers have been in coverage this season, he is likely drooling over the prospect of targeting them. Using frequent play action is another potential strategy as well. The MVP favorite’s passer rating is a league-leading 147.1 off play action according to ESPN’s NFL Matchup. They can rattle off big easy-access plays in a heartbeat with their play designs and overall talent. If Jones isn’t active, it’s hard to see how they aren’t the latest opponent on the Saints’ 45 points or more list.

Julio Jones’ quiet historic year takes center stage

When assessing the most receiving yards list, it’s a foregone conclusion that Jones will rank in the top five every season. Everyone is accustomed to seeing him create separation against corners who dare to press him or accelerate past defenders playing zone. His chemistry with Matt Ryan is second to none in shredding opposing defenses. As great as Jones is, it’s essential to have a quarterback that can throw with anticipation and confidence on a consistent basis. Ryan’s ability to hit him in stride before he finishes at the top of his route is tremendous. It’s one of the many things that helps Jones put up these staggering numbers.

For all of Jones’ incredible accolades, he is on pace to have the most productive season of his career, yet there isn’t much discussion about it. The standard Jones has set is so high that his sensational stat totals aren’t considered incredible. Producing 100 yards or more in seven out of ten games, which includes the last five games doesn’t spark a huge reaction anymore. It takes a Keanu Neal-esque hit to prevent an interception for Jones to get a national response about his on-field performance. Could the lack of recognition be based off the Falcons’ disappointing season or not playing in many nationally televised games? Whatever the case may be, it doesn’t involve his lack of touchdowns following three consecutive games of him getting into the end zone.

The stage is set for Jones to have another spectacular performance. New Orleans is one of the three teams that prevented him from gaining 100 yards or more (albeit by four yards). Unlike last season, Marshon Latimore isn’t expected to shadow the superstar receiver. New Orleans has gone to great lengths in protecting their mistake-prone secondary. Despite already developing into a well-known commodity, Lattimore’s presence didn’t greatly affect Jones in both matchups last season, as the young corner repeatedly found himself out of position. There hasn’t been much enthusiasm about the Falcons this season. That likely won’t change after Thursday’s game. Watching one of the greatest talents in NFL history try to dominate and end a bitter rival’s nine-game winning streak is something to be enthused about. The Falcons haven’t been this big of an underdog on primetime since facing Green Bay in 2014. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Jones have a repeat performance to keep the Falcons’ afloat in a likely shootout.

Potential final stand for Robert Alford

It’s rare to see a talented player’s performance level drop so quickly and drastically. After re-signing Alford near the end of 2016, the front office was satisfied with their number two corner. He responded from adversity on multiple occasions to validate himself as a legitimate above-average corner. He showed considerable improvement in 2015 after a difficult start to his career. His early-season issues with penalties in 2016 was amended by an outstanding finish to the season, as Alford was instrumental in keeping the secondary stabilized following Trufant’s season-ending injury. The ultra-aggressive corner continued to evolve by everything together last season in what the best year of his career.

In less than one year, Alford has regressed from being one of the best number two corners in the league to an easy target for quarterbacks. That’s how poorly he is currently playing. He doesn’t change direction as smooth as he once did. Not reacting quickly enough off the line of scrimmage allows receivers to blow past him with relative ease. Between single-handily allowing the Giants to make a late comeback attempt by allowing four passing plays of 30 yards or more to missed tackles that led to touchdowns against New Orleans and Cincinnati, the once-reliable corner is starting to become a major liability.

It’s getting to the point where benching him wouldn’t be a controversial decision. Before facing Dallas, Alford’s passer rating allowed was over 150 per Pro Football Focus. Allowing a near-perfect passer rating should raise questions about his future. Teams are having far too much success targeting him on the outside. If any coach knows how to exploit a major defensive weakness, Payton is one of the first names mentioned on the list. Using Thomas primarily on the left side against Alford to ruthless attack the embattled corner wouldn’t be surprising. Capitalizing on mismatches is what Payton loves to do. Another onslaught could signal the beginning of the end for Alford in Atlanta. The oft-criticized corner needs to prove he can still play at a high level in a game where he’ll be extensively challenged.

Limiting New Orleans’ emerging pass rush

What isn’t being talked about enough during New Orleans’ nine-game winning streak is their steady defensive improvement. They couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start this season in getting embarrassed at home by a Ryan Fitzpatrick-led Tampa Bay offense. After playing nearly as bad against the Falcons, Dennis Allen’s scheme was clearly not meshing well with the personnel. Ken Crawley and P.J. Williams were being routinely torched in man coverage. Poor coverage on the backend made generating a consistent four-man rush practically impossible.

The coaching staff had to reassess their defensive structure three weeks into the season. By transitioning towards more of a zone-scheme and increasing their A-gap blitz usage, the Saints are starting to regain their 2017 form as one of the better defenses in the league. Limiting the Bengals and Eagles to a combined 21 points in the last two weeks shows their capabilities as an overall unit. It all starts with the front four led by Cameron Jordan. The perennial game-wrecking defensive lineman remains as dangerous as ever. Unlike in previous seasons, there is genuine talent around him.

Sheldon Rankins’ emergence has lifted a once-struggling defense. Analysts raved about him coming out of Louisville, yet injuries and inconsistency have plagued his development. Those issues are long behind him, as Rankins is starting to establish himself as one of the top interior defensive tackles in the league. His knack for getting immediate leverage with his frame and first step gives opposing guards fits. Pro Football Focus’ Austin Gayle wrote an informative breakdown of New Orleans’ new difference maker. Pairing Rankins and Jordan together, along with the vastly underrated Alex Okafor gives them serious options up front. Combine those players with Allen’s willingness to blitz more often and Ryan could be in for a long night.