Thankfully, the Braves won this week and made a lot of Atlanta fans happy, because Falcons-Saints is a tough matchup and it kicks off in a few short hours. I’m hopeful Atlanta will win and deliver us a happy Sunday afternoon, but we do have to brace for the possibility that the Saints will do what they’ve done against the Falcons far too often of late.
That’s true even though Trevor Siemian is (reportedly) under center, though we’ll likely still see Taysom Hill. The fervent hope is that Arthur Smith has this team ready to go in his first career matchup against the Saints, and that they walk out of New Orleans victorious.
We turned to Chris Conner at Canal Street Chronicles to answer a few questions about this week’s reviled opponent and figure out what’s ahead for our favorite team. You’ll find our Q&A below.
Dave Choate: How do you think Trevor Siemian will do as the starting quarterback this weekend against Atlanta?
Chris Conner: It’s such a complex question to answer. The Saints weapons at receiver aren’t elite especially without Mike Thomas, and it’s been some time since we’ve been able to truly evaluate Siemian. But he does have a positive record as a starter and some solid games on film. The coaching staff loves him and the players seem to believe in him, and after a debut out the bullpen of sorts last weekend there’s an argument to say he could be even better. Overall I believe between his experience, Payton’s strength as a game planner, and the emergence of Taysom Hill back in his utility role, Siemian should be able to play at worst average in his first start for New Orleans.
Dave Choate: The Falcons run defense was putrid last week against Carolina, so I’m assuming the Saints are going to try to replicate the Panthers this week. How’s Alvin Kamara faring this year, do you expect Mark Ingram to be significant involved this week, and are you confident they’ll run over Atlanta?
Chris Conner: Alvin is having another good season. Due to several offensive injuries, and the plugging in of Jameis Winston, he’s been used as a traditional back a little bit too much to my liking.
So that’s where Mark Ingram comes into play. Ingram arrived pretty much mid week coming into the Tampa game, so his role wasn’t all that detailed. I surely expect the Saints to feature him a lot more as you mentioned against a struggling Falcons run defense. Sean Payton has always loved running back committees, and since the emergence of Kamara years ago, he’s made it clear about wanting to keep Alvin steady enough to be fresh late in the year.
With the wide receiving position lacking, and adjusting to another starting QB the rest of the season, Alvin can help the Saints immensely with his ability catching out of the backfield. All in all though between the offensive line, Kamara, Ingram, and the threat of Taysom Hill, I believe the Saints will have their opportunities to gash the Falcons run game and control the time of possession.
Dave Choate: Let’s flip this question around. This Saints run defense looks tremendous, and the Falcons have been a so-so rushing attack all year. What’s driving the excellence for that defense, and are there are any particular players you’d look to attack?
Chris Conner: They just communicate so well. As long as Demario Davis is out there, people just fall in line. Sure, Cam Jordan has been a fantastic run defender his entire career. Marcus Davenport has made strides on that side of the spectrum.
The introduction to rookie linebacker Pete Werner and the return of Kwon Alexander, gives New Orleans tremendous speed when attacking rushers. But it all starts with Demario.
He makes the calls, the adjustments, and overall leads with passion and by example, making spectacular individual plays, or assisting in collaborative plays. Right now I couldn’t tell you who to attack with stud David Onyemata returning at defensive tackle last week. The aforementioned Alexander can be caught out of position in his instincts jar, and Werner is still a rookie, so they’re not perfect. The Saints have just been so excellent against the run for so long now, it’s hard to pick any possible exploit targets.
Dave Choate: Kyle Pitts is really this team’s sole standout weapon, and Carolina did a nice job of making him a non-factor last Sunday. How do you expect New Orleans to put the clamps on him in this one, and do they have the personnel and the plan to do it successfully?
Chris Conner: I expect a bracket type of coverage and the Saints to try being physical when Pitts is lined up traditionally or in the slot. With most tight ends New Orleans would assign veteran Malcolm Jenkins, but Pitts isn’t most tight ends.
Some have contemplated placing Marshon Lattimore on Pitts with the loss of Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones finally being out of the division. I don’t believe the Saints have the personnel to play Pitts in solo matchups unless Pitts lines up mainly out wide. But as a collective I believe they have enough to contain him. I’ve just seen too many TE’s shred this team to count Pitts out.
Dave Choate: Winston’s injury may have shaken up your expectations for the team a bit, but where do you think the Saints finish in the NFC South? Are they a playoff team, and can their defense and ground game carry them far if so? Also, I bet I know your answer, but do the Saints beat the Falcons?
Chris Conner: I ultimately think the Saints finish second behind Tampa Bay in the NFC South. But it will be close. Sean Payton and his staff has done another fantastic job putting the Saints in the right positions to succeed. But it’s the overall talent that puts this team over the top, even if that means they’re missing a few key players.
Without Micheal Thomas, Drew Brees, and now Jameis Winston, the Saints still remain one of the most talented rosters in football. That’s dangerous with a coach like Payton. So yes they’re a playoff team, and it may take different paths to victory each week. Special teams, the passing game, etc.
But in regards to their next game versus Atlanta, the path to victory should be a familiar one. Why should New Orleans stop overcoming adversity now?
Thanks to Chris Conner for his time and expertise, even though I want him to be sad about his team today.