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Talkin’ Trenches: Week 15 preview vs. New Orleans

A look at the line of scrimmage battle in a huge rivalry matchup.

Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett celebrates a sack vs the New Orleans Saints in Week 1 of the 2022 NFL season
Grady Jarrett started the year off strong Week 1 vs. New Orleans. He hasn’t let off since.
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Before I get started, I want to give my sincerest condolences to anyone in the New Orleans area who is suffering from the damage caused by the tornado on Wednesday. Thankfully, my friends who are in the area are safe, and I hope and pray that all of y’all’s loved ones are okayas well.

Thank y’all for allowing me to send off those well wishes. Now, I’ll get into it...

Coming into the start of the season, I thought the Saints’ front 7 had the bragging rights to say they were just as good as any other in the league not named San Francisco. Fast forward to Week 15, and I still think that’s the case. Usually, saying that going into a matchup would make someone nervous, especially going on the road in a raucous environment with a rookie quarterback making his first start.

While I do have some concerns about this game, there are a few factors that make me feel comforted as well, and they should calm your nerves too. I’ll go into some recent trends I’ve seen from both teams and look back at the Week 1 matchup at the line of scrimmage.

First off, the offensive line...

Outside of the quarterback position and the continuous clamoring for more sack production, the offensive line might be one of the biggest points of emphasis for the Falcons this year. Everyone knew mostly what to expect from Jake Matthews and should-be Pro Bowler Chris Lindstrom, but many questions came from the remaining three starting positions. How would Kaleb McGary respond to his contract situation? Who would step up at left guard? Was Drew Dalman ready to be the starting center going forward?

While there are criticisms (some are justified) for almost every player on this unit, the answers to those questions have resulted in a top-five graded offensive line in the NFL. The best part is you had to look no further than Week 1 to see what was possible. Albeit in a loss, the Falcons were able to put up 416 yards of offense, including punishing the Saints for 201 yards on the ground, which in turn was the most the Falcons had in a game up to that point since 2018 versus Arizona.

If that doesn’t excite you, I’ll remind you that the offensive line also didn’t give up any sacks. Of course, part of that had to do with a mobile quarterback that can help clean up any mistakes up front. In case anyone has forgotten, Ridder is pretty athletic and mobile in his own right.

Key matchu (ILB vs IOL): The meeting of the minds. The Saints are one of two teams in the NFC that has two linebackers graded in the PFF top 10 (San Francisco being the other), and it’s easy to see why. Demario Davis was having one of those performances against Tampa Bay in their last game before things went downhill the final two minutes. It’ll be interesting to watch the mental chess match between he and Drew Dalman. Kaden Elliss has been the one who has come on with the injury to starter Pete Werner. In their week 11 matchup against the Los Angeles Rams, Elliss showed great pass rush ability working over the guards.

The Saints, like the Falcons, are in the bottom third of the league in blitz percentage (16.6%). It wouldn’t surprise me to see Dennis Allen up that percentage with a first-time starter coming in this week and with Elliss having put on some good tape from the inside. The Saints also are giving up 4.5 yards per carry to running backs this year. That sound like a good matchup for a team with two running backs that’re averaging over 4 yards per carry, doesn’t it?

To continue those themes, it’ll be up to the interior offensive line to work those double-team/chip blocks to perfection so they can reach that second level. If that happens, I fully expect Cordarrelle Patterson and Tyler Allgeier to cook.

Now for my favorite...defensive line!

My favorite group! Of course I’m not biased saying that. What would make you think so?

On a more serious note, watching this group against the Saints in Week 1 brought a lot of promise for what we could see going forward in the season with the pass rush. The Falcons recorded five sacks and hurried then-starter Jameis Winston 10 times. Since that game, unfortunately, the Falcons have recorded just 14 sacks, or just over a sack per game.

Coming into this game, the Saints have struggled running the ball. As talented as Alvin Kamara is, he hasn’t averaged over four yards per carry since Week 7 at Arizona. Of course, rushing stats barely tell the full story when it comes to Kamara’s abilities, but it’ll always benefit a defense whenever an offense is forced to be more one-dimensional.

The other side of the rushing attack, of course, is wherever in the world Taysom Hill lines up. He had 81 rushing yards in Atlanta, but most of those came on one big play. Since then, Hill has still been very effective on the ground, having participated in only four games where he averaged under four yards per carry.

When it comes to pass blocking, the Saints are graded out in the bottom third in the league, per PFF. Part of that is helped out by the fact that Andy Dalton gets the ball out fairly quickly. On average this season, Dalton is getting rid of the ball in 2.6 seconds. He won’t have the advantage of having Michael Thomas the way Winston did in the first matchup, but he has built a very strong rapport with rookie receiver Chris Olave.

While Olave did not have a big game in Atlanta, he has been averaging just under 70 yards per game with two 100-yard games included. Best believe I’ll have my popcorn ready whenever he’s matched up against the great A.J. Terrell. If A.J. and the rest of the Falcons secondary can make Dalton look away from Olave on his first read, there will be time and opportunity for the Falcons front to get home.

Key Matchup (Grady Jarrett vs. all y’all): Just like every other team, the Saints will have their hands full trying to deal with one of the best defensive lineman in all of football. When looking back at the Week 1 matchup, it was pretty easy to see all the attention Grady Jarrett draws. Take a look at this sack in the 3rd quarter where Mychal Walker comes in untouched:

Andrus Peat has to stay with Jarrett, and it allows Walker to come home free. There have been plenty of occasions where teams slide or turn the protection to Jarrett’s side, but he’s smart and quick enough to beat that protection to get home. While Andy Dalton can move a bit, he won’t be someone looking to get out of the pocket.

Should the Falcons secondary give Grady and the rest of that front some time to get home, I fully expect number 97 to wreak havoc, no matter how many bodies they want to turn his way in protection.

The wrap up

At one point in the Week 1 matchup, former Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma said during the broadcast that the Atlanta was “taking it to the Saints.” This happened right after a big effort play sack by Grady Jarrett in the 2nd quarter. The fact that a former Saints great said this about the effort the Falcons were putting forward is a gigantic compliment.

Fast forward to Sunday, and I do believe the Falcons can take it to them once again. As good as the Saints defense is, they can be run on, as the Falcons have shown. Pair that with an effective and efficient passing game, and things can get rolling offensively.

On defense, the Falcons have to continue to make the Saints one-dimensional. While they haven’t been great against the pass this year, it’s still a much more preferred situation to have an offense to rely on one style of attack and be more predictable. Let’s see if Dean Pees and company can dial up some looks to make Andy Dalton uncomfortable in the pocket.

By the way, the rivalry record is 54-53 in favor of the good guys. Here’s to hoping the Falcons will leave New Orleans on Sunday still with a winning record.