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Falcons vs. Saints: The most compelling storylines

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As lopsided as the matchup appears to be on paper, there is still plenty to be intrigued about involving one of the NFL’s most bitter rivalries.

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Atlanta Falcons v Houston Texans Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

One of the NFL’s best rivalries makes its return on Sunday. Unfortunately, the rivalry features a certified Super Bowl contender and a bottom five NFL team.

The Saints and Falcons are headed in complete opposite directions. Sean Payton’s group looks prime to compete for a championship this January. Dan Quinn is coaching for his job on a weekly basis at this stage of the season. Another loss or two could result in Arthur Blank moving on from the embattled head coach. Following a much-needed bye, the Falcons need to prove they are starting to learn from their mistakes and show genuine improvement across the board.

Raheem Morris’ influence in a new role

In a series of coaching changes across the Falcons’ coaching staff, the most notable change was Raheem Morris becoming the defensive backs coach. He had previously been the wide receivers coach. The positional switch is a sign of Quinn trying to address the glaring communication issues across the secondary.

The number of coverage breakdowns off miscommunication and poor organization has left the defense in complete disarray. With opposing offenses knowing how to attack Quinn’s Cover 3 based scheme, they’ve found ways to produce explosive plays and build sustained drives. A major adjustment needed to be made. While Morris isn’t going to single-handedly turn things around, this is an encouraging decision for the sake of improving a discombobulated defense.

Morris is known for being a players’ coach. For all his struggles in Tampa Bay, players were fully behind him. His intelligence and charisma should bode well for a secondary in dire need of new direction. They have been overmatched for most of the season. Whether it’s Deshaun Watson doing whatever he wants or Russell Wilson finding D.K. Metcalf wide open on multiple occasions in the red zone, quarterbacks have frequently torched them.

Desmond Trufant is expected to return on Sunday. His return should be beneficial, but it won’t translate into a drastic change. Quarterbacks were producing big games while Trufant was on the field. The secondary needed more than their most experienced defensive back on the field. Morris could be the person to bring more solidity to a fragile unit.

The move comes at a convenient time, considering the upcoming imposing matchup. There aren’t many teams operating at a higher level than New Orleans. Drew Brees’ return should make an already efficient offense furthermore dangerous. Pre-snap organization will be vital in trying to limit one of the top offenses in the league.

With Alvin Kamara healthy and Michael Thomas proving to be unstoppable, they can’t afford to give too much space to either player. They also can’t afford to be out of position on screens or play action. Payton won’t hesitate to utilize both play designs frequently to create high percentage looks for Brees. It will be on Morris to help Quinn solve one of the biggest problem areas on the team.

Offensive line faces a massive challenge

Preparing for one of the most prolific offenses in the league isn’t the only major test when facing the Saints. They have assembled an extremely dangerous defensive unit. It starts up front with Cameron Jordan leading the way. Jordan has terrorized the Falcons over the past few seasons. Between lining up on the left side and manhandling Ryan Schraeder to exploding past a variety of guards inside, the four-time Pro Bowler can create havoc in a multitude of ways. It doesn’t matter where he lines up. Jordan is going to cause chaos with his freakish athleticism, tremendous power, and long arms.

Unlike in recent seasons, the Saints aren’t solely reliant on Jordan to generate a pass rush. They have built a formidable defensive line through multiple drafts. Marcus Davenport’s impressive development gives them a true second edge rusher. The second-year player has already produced 38 pressures, which ranks ninth amongst all edge rushers per Pro Football Focus. New Orleans has reaped the rewards of adding another powerful edge rusher to take some pressure off Jordan. Drafting Sheldon Rankins, David Onyemata, and Trey Hendrickson helped complete a terrific group.

The Falcons invested heavily in improving the offensive line following last season’s debacle. None of their four additions have made a substantial difference. Chris Lindstrom’s long-term foot injury leaves him out of the disappointing list of players. The rest of the free agent signings and draft picks have failed to elevate a stumbling unit. James Carpenter’s frequent penalties and poor pass protection continuously hinders the offense. The questions of Kaleb McGray being an NFL caliber tackles have become evident from watching edge rushers beat him around the edge often. Although Jamon Brown has played decent at times, his inability to make blocks at the second level does leave a negative effect on the running game. These players were expected to bring power, stability, and savviness to the offensive line. That hasn’t been the case, which makes this upcoming matchup very concerning, especially with Matt Ryan making his return from an ankle injury.

Julio Jones versus Marshon Lattimore

After facing Jalen Ramsey three weeks ago, Jones gets to face another premier cornerback. Dennis Allen usually makes it a priority to match Lattimore up with Jones. It started in Lattimore’s rookie season, where the young cornerback held up impressively well in an intense Thursday night contest. His ability to play physical at the line of scrimmage and challenge receivers at the catch point makes him difficult to beat. Although Jones torched Lattimore a few weeks later on Christmas Eve in 2017, the excitement of this matchup was evident. Not many cornerbacks embrace covering Jones. Lattimore is one of the few cornerbacks willing to take the challenge and shadow him across the field.

There could potentially be a slight change on this occasion. Allen has recently avoided using Lattimore in the slot to shadow top receivers. There isn’t a specific behind it, but many suggest it could be because Cooper Kupp embarrassed him in September. Mohamed Sanu’s departure created a major void in the slot. There isn’t a true slot receiver on the Falcons roster. It means Jones will receive more opportunities in the slot, which puts Allen in a precarious position. Does he risk putting Lattimore in an uncomfortable position or depend on P.J. Williams to hold his own with some support? Dirk Koetter did use Jones quite a bit in the slot against Seattle. He knows the mismatches are there for the taking.

Regardless of how often they face other, Lattimore is bound to cover Jones for long periods of the game. There aren’t many things more exciting in football than a phenomenal wide receiver going up against an elite cornerback. Whoever wins the individual battle will receive plenty of praise. Whoever loses will be lambasted and called overrated by fools. That’s what comes with a matchup like this. Lattimore is going to try to disrupt Jones as much as possible, while the superstar wide receiver will look to force the physical cornerback to constantly change direction and take risks. This matchup should be as good as it’s been in previous seasons.