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

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Can the Falcons prevail in a likely shootout against their arch nemesis?

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

It seemed like everyone had this game marked on their calendars three weeks ago. After two intense games last year, the Falcons-Saints rivalry appeared to be back in full force. Players were going at with each other on both sides of the field. Every point had to be earned, as both teams drastically improved defensively following several dreadful seasons. Watching Julio Jones and Marshon Lattimore battle on nearly every snap was a joy to watch for every football fan. As much as both fanbases dislike each other, a rivalry is at it’s best when both teams are thriving at the same time. That was the case last year, which led to two chaotic games coming out of it.

Three weeks later, the buzz has diminished to an extent. New Orleans is fortunate that they aren’t currently 0-2. If it wasn’t for the Browns committing Browns-like mistakes, there would be huge pressure on Sean Payton right now.

Dan Quinn is feeling some pressure with several star players on the sidelines, too. With the NFC South being as unpredictable as ever, there is no telling what could happen to either team going forward. Whoever wins will surely savor it because nothing has changed. This is still the most heated rivalry in football.

Containing Alvin Kamara

The biggest priority couldn’t be more evident heading into this grudge match. It’s the case for every team when trying to defend one of the most electrifying players in the league. Unlike most teams, the Falcons have fared well against Kamara. They were fortunate that Kamara suffered a concussion in their first meeting last season. Deion Jones’ excellent play made the Saints’ prolific offense look lost, which was the start of the middle linebacker’s career game. That freak moment proved not to be fluky two weeks later. They limited Kamara to 90 total yards and kept him out of the end zone. Jones was at the forefront of their impressive defensive display, along with Keanu Neal holding his own against Kamara on numerous occasions.

Both players will be sidelined on Sunday, while Kamara should continue to receive a huge workload with Mark Ingram serving a four-game suspension. The timing couldn’t be worse for the Falcons. After Christian McCaffrey found plenty of space underneath last week, Sean Payton must be salivating over the opportunities that Kamara will be presented with. Duke Riley struggled mightily in his first start replacing Jones. Between missing tackles to blowing coverage assignments to making poor decisions against the run, opposing coaches will focus on targeting the middle of the field. Expect Kamara to be heavily involved in New Orleans’ game plan with Riley and Jordan Richards struggling to process and finish plays. Although Damontae Kazee won’t be suspended following last Sunday’s ejection, the coaching staff will give Richards more snaps in hoping he can develop into an enforcer. Nothing about his performance against Carolina suggests the former second round pick is ready for a bigger role.

Front four concerns

With Quinn’s defense already struggling to life without two of their biggest difference-makers, the Falcons can’t afford any more injuries. Most of Cam Newton’s success came from throwing to the middle of the field. Although Riley and Richards were at fault for most of the coverage breakdowns, it didn’t help that Newton was standing firmly in the pocket on most throws. The Falcons’ pass rush was non-existent for large portions of the game. The fear of not properly replacing Adrian Clayborn and Dontari Poe is starting to come to light.

A once talent-rich defensive line is starting to look dire. Those worries have only been intensified by Takkarist McKinley and Derrick Shelby suffering groin injuries against Carolina. Both players haven’t practiced this week, which raises major concern about their availability on Sunday. Vic Beasley’s lack of progress in returning to being strictly used as an edge rusher doesn’t help matters. From his poor hand usage to not having any consistent moves in his repertoire, the 2016 sack king is badly regressing.

The Falcons can only expect so much from Brooks Reed, Jack Crawford, and recently-signed Steven Means. If McKinley is out, there will be increased pressure on Beasley to carry the pass rushing load. The same applies to Grady Jarrett, who is the only player generating inside pressure at the moment. There is only one result that comes from giving Drew Brees time in the pocket. If any team knows the outcome, it would be the Falcons. The future Hall of Famer will pick them apart if given sufficient time in the pocket.

Wes Schweitzer’s second chance

For the second consecutive season, depth on the Falcons’ interior offensive line will be tested. Andy Levitre suffered a season-ending triceps injury in the first quarter against Carolina. Losing the veteran guard is a definite blow, as his resurgence in Atlanta shouldn’t be understated. An indifferent first season in 2015 was quickly erased by excellent performances in the following two seasons. He provided stability within their zone-blocking scheme. Considering all the issues at right guard, Levitre’s above average play was crucial in the Falcons building one of the better offensive lines in the league.

Schweitzer deserves praise for holding up admirably well against Carolina’s stout defensive line. After struggling for the majority of 2017, it didn’t seem like Schweitzer was capable of starting in the NFL. The signing of Brandon Fusco suggested that the coaching staff had the same viewpoint. For him to step in and help the Falcons dominate on the ground last week is a huge step in the right direction. It gives Schweitzer another opportunity to prove himself on a talented offensive line. Could simply moving to the left side turn a player from being a major liability into a dependable starter? Time will tell for the former sixth round pick. With difficult matchups against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh looming, a strong performance against New Orleans will be vital for his outlook.

Time is now for Calvin Ridley

In the midst of criticism surrounding Steve Sarkisian, the lack of attention given to Calvin Ridley was repeatedly highlighted. How does a team’s first round pick not catch a single pass in such a massive game? How can Ryan attempt 43 passes without throwing one completion to one of his supposed main weapons? It takes time for a quarterback to build a rapport with a young wide receiver. Although Sarkisian has previous experience working with Ridley, this was a far different setup compared to Alabama’s infrastructure. The coaching staff knew it would take time for them to help Ridley find his niche. For it to start materializing in Week 2 must be a huge morale-booster for everyone within the organization.

A combination of crossing patterns and rub route concepts helped the explosive wide receiver produce multiple 20-yard plus plays. Scheming players open to create easy chunk plays is one of the main goals for every offensive coordinator. It hasn’t been easy for him, but Sarkisian is starting to put playmakers where they excel the most. Isolating Ridley on the outside against fellow rookie Donte Jackson gave him an opportunity to score his first NFL touchdown. Those individual matchups are where Ridley shines the most with his sharp route-running and terrific footwork. Per ESPN’s NFL Matchup, the Falcons’ offense ranks fourth in most explosive plays. New Orleans’ secondary has been prone to giving up big plays so far this season. Allowing pass plays of 58, 50, 47, 35 against Tampa Bay and Cleveland should give Ryan confidence to throw downfield more often. Ridley should be one of the main beneficiaries in what should be a more aggressive game plan.