The Falcons and Saints play tomorrow. This game has been a long time coming and will feature plenty of intrigue, with Drew Brees parked on injured reserve and the Taysom Hill era possibly beginning for real in New Orleans. We had plenty of questions about Hill and the state of this Saints team, so we turned to Maddy Hudak at Canal Street Chronicles for answers. You’ll find our Q&A below.
Dave Choate: The Saints were embarrassed after the Falcons bye last year, as Atlanta easily beat them. I stress, again, that this was really embarrassing. What’s to prevent that from happening again this year?
Maddy Hudak: Frankly, in light of the recent starter news, Sean Payton’s mind games are currently the preventative plan. I’ll get to his quarterback antics shortly. Last year’s loss was quite simply due to two factors: sacks and penalties. Pretty easy recipe for losing a football game. Brees is not a mobile quarterback; six sacks on Brees is never a good day for the Saints offense. Prior to that November 10th upset last year, the Saints had 12 total sacks on quarterbacks, with just one on Brees (him being out five games certainly contributes to that low statistic). When the Saints have no offensive line, they do not win football games – last year’s Wild Card loss to Minnesota is Exhibit A.
In terms of penalties, we just repeatedly shot ourselves in the foot. There was a defensive holding call on an incomplete third down pass – if you know the Saints defense, giving the opponent another chance at third down is…not ideal. There were several third down erasures on defensive penalties, followed by a roughing the punter in the fourth quarter, and a false start for the Saints on fourth down. Sloppy, penalty-ridden football will easily hand you a loss.
The Falcons had six first downs from penalties last year. We were ranked 6th in both downs by penalties and yardage last year with 120 for 1,036 yards. This year, we’re just playing cleaner football. Comparatively, we’re ranked 19th this year in downs by penalties with 52. Of note, we’re still the costliest NFL team in terms of penalty yardage, coming in at first with 642 through the year. So, the less flags thrown (in…certain contexts) the better for New Orleans. How to prevent this from repeating? You apparently blow up the quarterback room, and focus on disciplined football.
Dave Choate: Jameis Winston is kind of a Falcons killer, but he’s also Magooed his way to some ugly game-ending interceptions, including at the end of the 2019 season. What are your expectations for Winston in this offense, and how much is he going to play versus Taysom Hill under center?
Maddy Hudak: Well, readers, we sent these questions out early this week. This is a PSA for procrastination, because we now have some more…interesting intel to work with. While Payton declined to name a starter in his press conference on Friday, the NFL news of the day is that Taysom Hill is set to be the starter this weekend. Here’s a few reasons why I’m not surprised:
- Classic Sean Payton mind voodoo 101
- Taysom may be a…better matchup?
- The utter chaos factor
- Everything Payton has been telling us for two seasons
Rivalries are best when they’re a constant back and forth, and besides the 49ers, no team has our card like the Falcons. You all can go 5-11, forget how to orchestrate an onside kick, not know how to fall at the 1-yd line, and then go beat the Saints (and last year, ironically, San Francisco) like it’s a skip through the park.
We just turn into a bit of a mess, at least once a year, when we play you guys. And if we’re working off of last year as a blueprint, I’m sure Sean is keenly aware of the difference those six sacks made. What Atlanta is not adept at, however, is containing a mobile quarterback. Perhaps that’s the Hill angle. What’s more likely, however, is that Payton thrives on adversity. He loves a challenge; people lauded his ability to seamlessly keep a playoff team operating sans Brees last year. What better way to up the ante than to completely transform the Saints offense midseason?
The resounding criticism of Hill is that he can’t throw. Well, we’re basically inferring that from his predisposition to put his head down and run on RPO plays, and the fact that he’s completed 7 total passes in the NFL. Here’s my counter – how on earth do you prep for that? There was a quote a few weeks back from Alvin Kamara on Hill, and how even if the opposing team knows what he’s lining up to do, there’s still the necessary factor of stopping him – which has proved difficult for many a team. Now, there’s quite literally no telling what he’ll do when lined up under center should he be the named starting quarterback. That is the definition of a nightmare for an opposing coaching staff.
Could this all be a giant smokescreen? Absolutely. But all signs all along have pointed to this – people just didn’t want to believe it to be true. Payton has told us in spades that Hill is the next Steve Young. It looks like he’s ready to prove it. Let’s face it, you guys will never, never, live this down if Taysom Hill leads the Saints to win this Sunday.
Dave Choate: Injury-wise, who is out? The list coming out of the last game seemed pretty lengthy and I’m wondering if the Saints will be able to point to the injury excuse if/when they lose, or if they’ll have to find something else.
Maddy Hudak: Well, besides the obvious absence, we’re certainly looking at a banged-up squad after last week’s disaster. We’ve been a bit on edge with Alvin Kamara out of practice all week, but mercifully he returned today; barring any last-minute woes, we should expect him out on the field on Sunday. You just never know with Marshon Lattimore, but he was limited on Thursday, as well as Cam Jordan and Ryan Ramczyk. Josh Hill will likely not be out there, and Tre’Quan Smith is a giant question mark.
Those aren’t casual names to show up on the injury report. I’m expecting Kamara, Jordan and Ramczyk to be good to go on Sunday – Lattimore I’m just always hesitant about. But you’re really telling me we can’t point to injuries in a game where we’ll be without our HOF quarterback?
Dave Choate: The Saints secondary looked putrid early on but seems to really have clamped down hard in recent weeks. What’s behind that transformation, if indeed it’s as much of a transformation as I’m making it out to be, and how can they keep that going against Julio Jones and (maybe) Calvin Ridley?
Maddy Hudak: The noted change in the Saints defense came after the absolute beatdown we put on against Tampa. Was that one of the worst offensive showings I’ve ever seen? Absolutely. Was there nonetheless a palpable sense of defensive chemistry, placebo effect or not? Absolutely. Sometimes, teams just need “that” game to make things click – we saw it happen on offense for New Orleans, for a point of reference, in the game against Carolina in Week 7. This is frankly the defense we’ve been expecting this season, and have been (impatiently) waiting to finally see. They stepped up when Drew went down last week – I expect them to do just the same this weekend, just as they did in 2019.
That Marshon Lattimore injury designation? It becomes pretty much critical to our secondary with the opposing cast of Jones and Ridley. And even Lattimore has difficulty containing Jones – the difference on the Saints end this year is the addition of Janoris Jenkins. The tandem has finally started to show signs of elite lockdown coverage, and this weekend is the optimal ultimate test. That being said, I am never going to be comfortable chancing it on the Saints secondary. The pass rush is going to be crucial in containing the Falcons aerial game more than anything else; the best solution for a murky secondary is to ensure the quarterback barely has any time to throw. Even when our secondary is playing bad – see the Week 7 Panthers game again for a great example – if we can pressure the quarterback to throw it away or throw incomplete, that’s really our best threat in the backfield. Thankfully, Matt Ryan isn’t particularly spritely.
Dave Choate: Who do you expect to win the game, what’s the score, and just how far are the Saints going in the playoffs this year (even I know they’re making it there)?
Maddy Hudak: I genuinely have no idea – and that’s probably for the best. I’ll go 24-17 Saints for pure conjecture sake – this is Sean Payton’s Tale, should he start Hill. If he’s going to be that insane, he’d better win the football game. I think this game will be a solid barometer for our playoff success; we should frankly be planning how to get through Week 17 without Drew to be on the safe side. Not that home field advantage matters much this year, but I’d personally rather skip the trip to Green Bay in January.
We’re never a good team when the going is easy – we do best when we’re in a state of chaos. So, in keeping with the general trend of 2020, I say the Saints figure out a way to scramble into the playoffs. Our success thereafter really hinges on Drew – but I think we can get there without him.
Thanks for Maddy Hudak for her answers. If you’re interested in following her on Twitter, her handle is MaddyHudak_94.
Check out our frenemies at Canal Street Chronicles for more open disrespect of our beloved Falcons.