Atlanta’s defense should be able to match up well against the Saints’ offense, assuming the improvement we’ve all observed this spring and summer proves to be real. Can the Falcons’ offense get the job done against the Saints’ defense if that’s the case?
That’s a little bit trickier to answer. Atlanta’s offense has an intriguing array of weapons, but we don’t yet know how Marcus Mariota will fare, and the offensive line remains perhaps this team’s biggest question mark. The Saints have traditionally at least made things difficult with a quality pass rush, and last year they were able to clamp down on the Falcons ground game for long stretches. To get out of here with a win, the Falcons will need to show that New Orleans’ on paper advantages on defense are just that, paper thin and not enough.
Let’s take a closer look.
In the trenches
The chief advantage I believe the Saints have any kind of real advantage in this game is this matchup, which could get ugly. As Aaron Freeman wrote yesterday, the Saints have destroyed Atlanta’s offensive line for years now, and they did so handily just a year ago.
Is Elijah Wilkinson an upgrade over Jalen Mayfield? Hopefuly, but we don’t know yet. Is Drew Dalman an upgrade over Matt Hennessy? Hopefully, but we don’t know yet. Is Kaleb McGary in 2022 an upgrade over...well, Kaleb McGary in 2021? Hopefully, but we don’t know yet. You can see why there are question marks about this line holding up owing to the unknowns alone, and as Aaron wrote, Mariota has not necessarily fared well against pressure despite his mobility in the past. The hope is that the line is improved and Mariota thrives in Arthur Smith’s scheme, helping to defeat a formidable Saints pass rush, but that truly is a “believe it when you see it” sort of hope.
Because that’s what this is, a good pass rush and a quality run defense up front. Marcus Davenport finally started to put it together last year, managing nine sacks and showcasing some real run-stopping ability, and Cam Jordan is as much of a pain in the ass as he has ever been. Shy Tuttle and David Onyemata are stone solid in the middle of the line and the Saints have quality depth, and this is the kind of line I’m certain Terry Fontenot and company would like to build toward, except even better.
The linebacker group isn’t quite as strong, but Demario Davis is excellent and Pete Werner showed signs of being a problem last year. Davis is a problem as a pass rusher, as well, which makes the job more difficult for a line with two brand new starters.
Until proven otherwise, we sadly have to assume the Saints have a significant advantage here.
The Falcons are slowly building a pretty formidable group. Kyle Pitts is on the cusp of superstardom, Cordarrelle Patterson proved last year he’s as dangerous by the air and on the ground as they come, and Drake London, Bryan Edwards, and Olamide Zaccheaus offer plenty as receivers. If Marcus Mariota has the time and wherewithal to get them the ball, good things should happen, and the offense should look better more or less immediately than it did a year ago.
There are enough question marks in the Saints secondary to give you pause. Will starting cornerback Paulson Adebo be healthy after not practicing earlier in the week? Will Marcus Maye be a massive downgrade in coverage from Marcus Williams, or just a minor one? Is Tyrann Mathieu still going to be the same caliber of safety as he ages? Can Pete Werner and Demario Davis hold Cordarrelle Patterson in check? The back half of this defense should be good when everyone is healthy, but they traded out a couple of extremely good safeties for ones with question marks, and Atlanta has more weapons to bring to bear than they did just a year ago. It’s hard for me to imagine this Saints secondary—and even their capable linebacker group—doing enough to keep the Falcons entirely in check.
The team that has Kyle Pitts has the advantage. Crazy concept.
The trenches advantage is a big problem in the making here, unless Marcus Mariota is an escape artist of some renown in this one and/or the line perks up significantly after stinking last year. I think expecting the Falcons to fare a bit better is very reasonable, and the quality of their skill position players gives me hope that even if they’re a bit rough up front, they’ll score enough points to win this one.
I’d give a narrow edge to the Saints until we see the offensive line hold up. I genuinely feel like this is far more evenly matched than you’d ever suspect hearing analysts talk about these two teams, and in a traditionally close matchup between two bitter rivals, all the Falcons probably need to squeak out a win is the line to play competently. Fingers crossed they can manage that.
Advantage: Saints, slightly