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Saints vs. Falcons: The most compelling story lines for Thanksgiving

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Can the Falcons defy the odds and sweep their bitter rival?

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

There is nothing quite like having a heated rivalry take place on one of the best holidays of the year. For the second straight season, the Falcons and Saints are facing each other on Thanksgiving. Nobody is sure if this is going to become a yearly tradition. Based on how fired up both teams get when facing each other, it’s understandable to have this game on primetime.

Unfortunately for Dan Quinn, this could be his final game as head coach for this illustrious matchup. The pressure is back on following a disastrous loss to Tampa Bay. To face Sean Payton’s team, who will certainly be looking for revenge after what happened in the last meeting, doesn’t came at an ideal time. The possibility of sweeping the Saints does create some intrigue in an otherwise lost season for the Falcons.

State of Matt Ryan and the offensive line

It’s never easy playing on a short week. To play on a short week after taking a grueling beating is even worse. Ryan endured six sacks and 13 hits from 52 drop backs in last Sunday’s drubbing against Tampa Bay. If the franchise quarterback didn’t have excellent pocket awareness, he would have taken more punishment. It was an abysmal showing from the entire offensive line. While Tampa Bay has clearly bolstered their defensive line, they shouldn’t be able to destroy a game plan like they did against the Falcons. How overmatched they were raises major concern going into tonight’s game.

New Orleans has constructed one of the better defensive lines in the league. Cameron Jordan’s versatility and power makes a difficult matchup for anyone. The emergence of Marcus Davenport and Sheldon Rankins helped take pressure off the stalwart defensive lineman. With Dennis Allen’s blitz-heavy philosophy, Ryan will be facing significant pressure. Dirk Koetter should dial back the vertical play designs in order to alleviate the potential punishment Ryan takes. What will also be vital is the offensive line not getting completely manhandled at the point of attack.

Jake Matthews and Kaleb McGary had their worst games of the season. McGary’s issues in pass protection have gotten to the point where benching him wouldn’t be a controversial move. Edge rushers have consistently blown past him around the edge. The rookie tackle isn’t the only reason behind the instability on the right side of the offensive line.

Quinn’s bizarre decision to rotate between Jamon Brown and Wes Schweitzer hasn’t helped matters. While Brown clearly isn’t playing well, there is no reasoning behind playing Schweitzer, who has proven to be a below-average player after starting more than 30 games. Not giving Matt Gono an opportunity to prove himself is one of many questionable personnel decisions. With James Carpenter playing arguably worse than Brown and Schweitzer, there is no reason why Gono shouldn’t be playing at this point. The Falcons desperately need solutions in positional areas that they needed solutions for at this stage last season.

The threat of Michael Thomas

Although Alvin Kamara is capable of creating mismatches and breaking open a game at any time, Thomas has established himself as the Saints’ primary threat. The two-time Pro Bowler is living up to his “can’t guard” motto. By ranking fifth in yards from scrimmage, he’s proven defenses simply can’t stop Thomas from getting open and doing damage after the catch. Some of his success can be attributed to Payton’s play calling wizardry. It also doesn’t hurt to have a future Hall of Famer, along with a starting-caliber quarterback as a backup throwing him the ball. Most of his success comes from being the complete package as a superstar wide receiver.

Thomas is one of the best route runners in the league. He baits cornerbacks out of position with tremendous footwork and head movement makes him a matchup nightmare. When defenses opt to play zone, he knows where to find the soft spots within their coverage. If Thomas is well covered, it’s still highly unlikely that you can prevent him from making plays. Per Pro Football Focus’ Sam Monson, Thomas is catching a preposterous 82.3% of his contested targets this season. His ability to use his long frame to put cornerbacks into helpless situations is remarkable. It also doesn’t hurt that Thomas possesses long arms and strong hands to make catches from all sorts of difficult angles.

Despite catching 13 passes for 152 yards, Thomas didn’t have a huge impact in the most recent matchup between both teams. His longest catch went for 18 yards, which showed how well organized the Falcons’ defense was. They didn’t have Desmond Trufant in the first game either. The veteran cornerback looks revitalized after missing most of October with a toe injury. After Isaiah Oliver struggled to keep pace with Thomas, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Trufant try to shadow him a bit. Quinn will need him at his best for this enormous matchup. They will also need to be as organized as they were in the first matchup to prevent Thomas from eating them alive when playing zone.

Coaching adjustments

The tactical battle between both coaching staffs will be more fascinating than usual. It was clear the Falcons’ adjustments caught Payton and Drew Brees off guard. With Raheem Morris and Jeff Ulbrich taking over play calling duties, they forced Brees into taking multiple coverage sacks and several check down passes. A variety of three-man rushes and disguised blitzes rattled Brees in a remarkable upset victory. There is no way Payton and Brees will be completely outwitted again. That makes this upcoming matchup so intriguing from a coaching standpoint.

One change New Orleans will need to take into account is likely not having Terron Armstead at left tackle. With Adrian Clayborn’s history of wrecking backup tackles, Payton may have to slide his protections to the left more often on passing plays. Devising more screens could be useful, although Payton already utilizes plenty of screens to get Kamara loose into the open field. For Brees to stand in the pocket and not find openings against one of the porous secondary units in the league was shocking. Look for Payton to scheme open his player better, along with attempting to run the ball more to avoid another implosion.

Quinn, Ulbrich, and Morris will need the front four to get back on track. There wasn’t a single defensive lineman that hit Winston once. Takkarist McKinley was limited by a shoulder injury. While the enigmatic pass rusher should play, his usage may be limited once again. Grady Jarrett is coming off multiple quiet games. Not receiving the star defensive tackle’s usual production has left the defensive line in dire need of help elsewhere. Could more blitzes be on the card or will the coaching staff rely on the secondary holding up like it did a few weeks ago? That’s the main question that will have to be answered in preparation for this highly-antipicated rematch.