Falcons vs Saints is one of the under-appreciated rivalries in the NFL. These games are almost always nail-bitingly close no matter what the record or standing of either team. The Falcons offense will look to continue their high-scoring ways against a Saints defense that has been inconsistent so far this year. Here’s how things could shake out.
Note: Assessments based on PFF grades where possible.
In the trenches
When they play at their best, this Falcons offensive line can be a top 5 unit. In the middle, Alex Mack is a steadying presence who is still one of the best centers in the league. On the outside, Jake Matthews is a good left tackle whose game has only gotten better each year in the league. Ryan Schraeder is a nasty right tackle who is beginning to bounce back to form after a down year. Brandon Fusco has played decently at right guard and is a clear upgrade over the starter from last year. That leaves us to the conundrum at left guard. With Andy Levitre out for the season, Wes Schweitzer will step in. He looked good against the Panthers but has been inconsistent throughout his young career. He’s the name to watch on this offensive line.
Across from them, the Saints feature a couple of very good players who could cause some issues on Sunday. Cameron Jordan is one of the best pass rushers in the league and is criminally underrated for the level of play he’s maintained over the years. Sheldon Rankins is a promising young defensive tackle who hasn’t quite lived up to the first-round billing just yet. Next to him, David Onyemata has shown glimpses of competence, but is inconsistent. Alex Okafor is a solid presence at DE, but is not a big pass rushing threat. First rounder Marcus Davenport has been playing well early, but has tremendous expectations heaped on him having cost the team two first-round picks.
Jordan is almost enough of a factor to make this a close matchup, but until the rest of the defensive line can match his level consistently, this one favors the Falcons. Keep an eye on Schweitzer, though, as he could be the wild card in this game.
The skill positions
Matt Ryan bounced back impressively last week, completing over 80% of his passes while tossing two TDs and running in two more in the victory over the Panthers. We’ll need that version of Ryan on Sunday. Julio Jones was quiet as his teammates saw good ball distribution against Carolina, but Jones figures to be a big factor in this matchup. Calvin Ridley demonstrated why he was a first rounder last week. Let’s hope we see more of that against New Orleans. While his stat line wasn’t dominant, Austin Hooper is improving into one of the better young tight ends in the league. With Devonta Freeman out, Tevin Coleman proved he’s more than capable of carrying the load, and Ito Smith shocked Falcons fans with his impressive performance last week as well. Mohamed Sanu is a veteran whose blocking is fantastic and whose hands in tight coverage make him an asset. This is a highly skilled group with enough talent to dominate most competition — so long as they execute well.
The Saints linebackers are headed by Manti Te’o in the middle. He’s decent, but certainly not on anyone’s top 10 list. A.J. Klein has had an inconsistent career, but has looked decent so far this season and Demario Davis has improved over the past couple of years to a relatively good linebacker. At safety, Marcus Williams showed tremendous promise last year but is off to a slow start so far in 2018. Vonn Bell is a decent safety as well, though not someone to write home about. At corner, Marcus Lattimore figures to match up with Julio. His strong rookie season has been followed up by some up and down play this year. Ken Crawley looked good last year but has been regularly torched so far in 2018. Patrick Robinson has been a decent player over his career, but his big year last year appears to be the outlier against the backdrop of his 8+ years in the league.
The Falcons have enough weapons to overwhelm the talent in the back end of this Saints defense. They just have to execute. Though there are some intriguing players in the Saints secondary, this group is average to above average which is enough to keep it close, but not enough to win this matchup.
The Falcons showed last week that with proper execution and better play calling, they are an offense that can score on nearly anyone. The Carolina Panthers defense is arguably more talented across the board than the Saints, and the Falcons put up 31 points on them. So long as the good Steve Sarkisian and Matt Ryan show up on Sunday, there’s no reason to think they can’t also score on this Saints defense.