The last time we ran this feature, our frenemies at Canal Street Chronicles predicted the Falcons would keep it close, but expressed confidence in Atlanta winning. After the absolute bomb the Falcons put out there last time, we weren’t sure the tempered disrespect they gave us last time out would even be tempered this time, but the show must go on.
We turned to CSC’s Maddy Hudak again for five questions on this week’s matchup, with a particular focus on the Saints secondary, Taysom Hill, and the mysterious disappearance of Alvin Kamara, pass-catcher.
Dave Choate: After Taysom Hill turned back into a pumpkin against a capable NFL defense, at least as a passer, what’s going to stop the Falcons from actually learning something from their triumph over Carr and Hill’s universally praised solid effort over Atlanta the last time? Are there new wrinkles yet to be added or is Hill’s upside clear only against bad defenses, and what are your expectations for him the rest of the way?
Maddy Hudak: Couple things to unpack here. First off, what would your strategy have been against a team with no quarterback? There weren’t many ways to lose that game. One way to easily do so is through turnovers. Taysom had a much more open playbook against you all in our first meeting, but with that came his perturbing fumble issues he’s had this season. Payton made it pretty clear in his presser that he instructed Taysom to be an excellent game manager – and he did just that.
I also have a small (very much unfounded) conspiracy that Payton wanted to make sure you guys didn’t have any extra tape to work with. Besides that, are Carr and Hill even similar at all? Sure, Carr is slightly mobile, but that game plan isn’t exactly going to translate outright. You’re just not going to sack Taysom Hill five times behind our offensive line. If you get to him with #4, he frankly might just start taking off if anything.
I also highly suspect we saw a muted game plan in our last matchup; Hill turned it on in the second half, but I think this weekend is when we’ll finally see Sean let Taysom turn it loose. That all said, I’d say we’re about as in the dark on Hill as you are. None of us are necessarily impressed, but I think (I hope) the majority of Saints fans can recognize that we’ve just been seeing Hill with the training wheels on – and there are absolutely zero takeaways to be had from the Denver “game.”
I’m planning to base my expectations off this weekend. It’s certainly put up or shut up time, but I’m confident New Orleans is well aware of that. Now, to reference your last point, I’m not entirely sure we’ll have a better sense of how Taysom plays against non-bad defenses after this weekend’s game either way.
Dave Choate: What if the strategy that has propelled your team to victory each of the last two matchups ceases to work? Big what if, given the brutality inflicted on Atlanta by the pass rush both times, but what if the Falcons do protect Matt Ryan this time out and the passing game gets into a bit of a rhythm? How do you expect Sean Payton and company to modify the game plan to deal with that?
Maddy Hudak: I’ll admit, you’re getting a bit of a break with Marcus Davenport being out with a (incredibly random) concussion. That said, did I miss a massive trade where you suddenly acquired an elite o-line? Our defense is currently the No. 1 NFL defense. If we inexplicably can’t attack the quarterback – especially after getting a week off from doing so – then we have deeper problems than winning this football game.
If, however, you suddenly uncover some secret formula, the pressure is going to be on the safety corps to make sure we don’t give up big plays. The big plays are what always kill us. With Janoris Jenkins out, our secondary is definitively downgraded. Our linebacker presence is exponentially upgraded this season to account for the short passing game, and given Matt Ryan’s ability to sling it, I’m sure if he gets the time, he’ll do just that. I just frankly don’t see it happening, particularly with your left guard being declared out for Sunday’s matchup.
Most likely, in the event we can’t pressure Ryan, we’ll decide C.J. Gardner-Johnson’s services aren’t as needed up front and drop him back to bail our forever nerve-wracking secondary out if necessary.
Dave Choate: I sort of asked this last time around but the Saints pressuring Ryan into oblivion made it moot: How good is this Saints secondary? Are you at all concerned about that being a trouble spot in the playoffs, or is this defense so good from top to bottom that only Taysom Hill can doom you?
Maddy Hudak: It’s honestly hard to say – our pass rush has been that good for so many weeks now, that oftentimes, quarterbacks don’t even get a chance to test it out. When we were having issues in the secondary earlier this season, this was my exact hoped-for strategy: just don’t even give the quarterback an opportunity to throw it downfield by sacking them into oblivion.
What we have done in the secondary, notably, is beef up on our man coverage. I always get nervous when we’re in zone, but our man coverage has always been horrific. That’s markedly changed this season. From my perspective, the Tampa Bay beatdown was an all-around turning point for our defense. Sometimes, I feel like a great game that builds team morale and chemistry is just as beneficial as a trade or major tweaks. The secondary just seemed a bit dazed and confused, and more out of sync than untalented. I think we saw that all click together a few weeks back, and I would cautiously say we’ve saw an improved secondary since.
I know the last few years in the playoffs have ended in a defensive heartbreak, but honestly? I’m not as worried about our defense in the playoffs as the offense. While the defense always lets the big play at the end ruin our hopes and dreams, I’ve found the last few years that our defense has done just well enough to keep our offense in the game while they falter in the first half or so. Our offensive line meltdown was the main reason for our Wild Card loss against the Vikings last year; when we can’t get Drew in a rhythm, it just spells trouble for the rest of the team.
What I hope this season: should we find ourselves in that type of game again, despite my weariness of his abilities long-term, I hope Sean recognizes if a game favors the skillset of Hill, like the Minnesota game so painfully did. And instead of stubbornly sticking it out, he adapts accordingly. Now, that’s not to say to bench Drew – I would never – but I think our versatility at the quarterback position need be used more as an asset in those types of situations. To me, the playoffs will likely fall on the offense to turn out more than the defense.
Dave Choate: Alvin Kamara and Jared Cook have essentially ceased to be part of the aerial attack since Hill took over under center. Again, does that change if the Falcons/other teams successfully take away Hill’s favored receivers, or is there a compelling reason two players of that caliber just aren’t being involved?
Madd Hudak: To start, I think Kamara and Cook go in separate categories here. Cook, I’m not sure what to diagnose with him at this point. It’s fairly disappointing; I’ve been high on Cook for the past few seasons, and have tried to give him a lot of leeway. He took a while to get going last year with Brees, but when they clicked, they really clicked. I expected that to translate this year – it just hasn’t. Weirdly, Hill has way more chemistry with Adam Trautman. I also think Sean is kind of letting Taysom pick out his comfortable targets, rather than forcing a game plan on him. So, with that, inevitably, comes some big-name casualties.
What no one was really expecting was for that to include Alvin Kamara. One of the noted issues with Taysom thus far is his lack of ability to read defenses and get through his progressions. He never gets to the checkdown, which is where the Saints offense excels, and is often most efficient. We can complain about Drew’s deep balls all we want, but he frankly just has no reason to do that. It reminds me a bit of soccer; European soccer is all short passes to control the tempo and possession, while other styles favor more of the deep ball kick downfield with a chase. While exciting to watch, this doesn’t really establish a rhythm, give a team control over possession, or allow a game plan to develop. The Saints, to me, are very European with their offensive system.
Hill, unfortunately, just hasn’t operated in that fashion at all. In doing so, he’s effectively schemed out our top player in Kamara, who excels on those short checkdown passes. The ridiculous Green Bay touchdown earlier this season being a great example.
I also think Kamara is playing a bit hurt again – just like he did last year. He’s been limited with a foot injury for several weeks in a row now. Hopefully it’s nothing too serious, but it wouldn’t entirely surprise me if that was 80% the reason for his invisibility as of late.
That all said, Michael Thomas is still Michael Thomas, he’s Taysom’s top receiver, and even when double covered, you still Can’t Guard him. Emmanuel Sanders also gave you guys quite a bit of trouble in our first meeting. Cook has been a nonfactor, I think defenses know that, and I expect it to stay that way. Kamara also wasn’t too involved in our first meeting, so I don’t really see a change in the status quo. What are you guys going to do, double cover Adam Trautman? (Editor’s Note: Maybe).
Dave Choate: Let’s get your game prediction, updated season and postseason prediction, and for good measure, who starts for this Saints team at QB in 2021?
Maddy Hudak: Well, my prediction last time was ill-advised; I clearly gave y’all too much credit. This week, I’m going to do it again. I’m going with my score last time: 24-17, Saints. I think Sean has been smartly playing conservatively with Taysom, so I don’t see us incessantly running up the score by being overly risky. I do, however, think that Atlanta will hopefully come adequately prepared for a football game this time around. You’ll be riding last week’s high, and I think it’ll be closer than comforting, but ultimately, we’re playing for a tangible playoff spot at the top. Can’t let the Falcons ruin our hopes and dreams just yet.