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This week’s big Falcons question: Will the run defense step up?

Personnel tweaks may help, but it’s a question of execution against a team ready and willing to run the ball.

NFL: OCT 31 Panthers at Falcons Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Carolina ground the Falcons to dust via the ground game last weekend, running the ball 47 times for 203 yards and a touchdown en route to a victory. The gameplan was obviously to consistently pick up yards and stress a run defense that has had its ups-and-downs this year, and it worked alongside a cartoonishly timid passing game and Sam Darnold randomly taking off and picking up 8 yards at a time.

The Saints are going to look at that effort and say “why not us?” They’re right to do so, because Atlanta’s run defense is allowing the 7th-highest yards per game in the league, the Saints are going to be reliant on a backup quarterback, and Atlanta’s secondary is actually finding its feet with A.J. Terrell’s emergence and veterans like Fabian Moreau and Erik Harris seemingly improving by the week.

There were really only two burning questions this week for the matchup, the other being whether the Falcons can gin up an effective passing game after falling so flat against the Panthers. We’ll cover off on that in a couple of other pieces this week, so let’s ask the other one: Will the Falcons run defense step up against New Orleans?

Let’s kick things off with brutal honesty and say that it’s hard to feel like drastic improvement is in the cards. The Saints haven’t been quite as productive on the ground as the Panthers, but that’s partly because Carolina’s coming off such a huge game against Atlanta. We know that Alvin Kamara typically fares pretty well against this Falcons defense, we know that a returning Taysom Hill can wreak havoc with his legs, and we know that Mark Ingram is an effective short yardage and goal line battering ram even though he’s almost 32 years old.

This defense is not totally helpless and/or hopeless, given that they’ve held multiple teams to 100 yards or fewer, and the Eagles and Panthers games account for nearly half the rushing yards they’ve allowed this season. As Locked On Falcons host and Falcoholic columnist Aaron Freeman noted the other day, the Falcons appeared to be dipping their toes in the water a bit more with James Vaughters and Mike Pennel each earning a decent number of snaps, and given that Vaughters is now on the active roster and the run-stopping need is dire we may see more of both. A.J. Terrell and Erik Harris have been among the Falcons defenders who have been stepping up their tackling and aggression in run support, and perhaps with some adjustments to personnel and plans the Falcons can at least prevent the Saints from (literally) running away with this one.

It’s still going to be a tall order, because the Falcons still only have one elite run defender on the entire defense in the form of Grady Jarrett, and because New Orleans is going to test their ability and resolve all day long. The hope is that a half decent pass rush, an improved run defense and better passing from Matt Ryan and company can carry the day against the team’s most bitter rival on the road. I’d love to tell you they can do all of that with aplomb and walk away with an easy win, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t awfully nervous.

Do you think the Falcons can hold the Saints in check on the ground?