Dean Pees has been fired up all spring and summer about the perception of the Falcons defense, which has been bad-to-mediocre most of the past two decades. As the team’s defensive coordinator and a man who loves to say things like “dadgum,” Pees is hoping to show Falcons fans, players, and critics alike that greatness is both possible and imminent in Atlanta.
The arrow appears to be pointing in the right direction, but we’re about to start finding out what kind of progress Pees and company have made with the defense. The Falcons will square off against the Saints Sunday, pitting a retooled New Orleans offense against an overhauled Atlanta defense in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Who has the advantage?
In the trenches
I’ll be brief on this one because I know Aaron Freeman is tackling the trenches in more detail in the coming days, but suffice to say this will be a good first test for Atlanta.
The Falcons have added talent up front, with Rashaan Evans certainly giving this team help in terms of stopping the run and Lorenzo Carter, Arnold Ebiketie, and DeAngelo Malone hopefully helping out rushing the passer. Along the line, it’s still Grady Jarrett, Anthony Rush, and what we hope will prove to be a big year from Ta’Quon Graham. Improvement should be expected, however modest it is at first.
The Saints are about the same, meanwhile, with the exception of Terron Armstead now being in Miami. The Falcons still once again see James Hurst at left tackle, where he helped pave the way for a monster day on the ground from the New Orleans rushing attack, and will see Andrus Peat at left guard. Hurst is not an elite player—neither is Cesar Ruiz at center, frankly—but they’re capable ones and this is a good line the Falcons will need to prove they can handle. Peat is easily the weakest link, and a player the Falcons will hopefully be able to embarrass frequently on Sunday.
The Saints have attackable links on this line for certain. It remains to be seen if the Falcons are good enough up front to take advantage of that, so we’ll pencil New Orleans in with a light advantage here.
The skill positions
The Saints have a rebuilt receiving corps, which is a point in their favor. They also have Alvin Kamara, who has had plenty of stellar efforts against the Falcons over the years. The question is what that all adds up to.
Honestly, and I may live to regret this, I’m just not that impressed with the Saints’ skill position options at the moment, though they certainly have their dangerous players. Kamara is always a threat and rookie Chris Olave is a wildcard, but a rusty Michael Thomas, a subpar tight end group, and an aging Jarvis Landry do not a great group make. The sheer number of capable options with Adam Trautman and Tre’Quan Smith factoring in makes the job harder, but only a truly healthy Thomas and Kamara figure to be elite threats, and I can’t imagine Thomas will be 100% himself in his first game back in nearly two years.
The Falcons’ secondary and linebacker group, meanwhile, should be better than it was a year ago. A.J. Terrell is already a terrific player and one of the best young cornerbacks in football, and Casey Hayward is a massive upgrade on the solid-but-sometimes-burnt Fabian Moreau opposite him. Richie Grant and Jaylinn Hawkins have more upside than Erik Harris and Duron Harmon did a year ago, so even with some early hiccups, their ballhawking skills and physicality should present problems for the Saints. Rashaan Evans and Mykal Walker will help a lot against the run and can’t be much worse than Deion Jones and Foye Oluokun were in coverage last year, given that they were arguably the worst inside linebacker duo in coverage in the entire NFL in 2021.
Atlanta’s biggest trouble spot might be the nickel, where the impressive but relatively unproven Dee Alford or veteran Mike Ford figure to start. Ford was a bit of a liability at times in preseason in coverage and this will be Alford’s first regular season action if he starts, and either way the Saints figure to try to attack them until they (hopefully) realize they can’t.
There are unproven options on both sides here, and I don’t see a major advantage for either team heading into this one. The biggest reason to fear is that Jameis Winston is back, and Atlanta won’t get to face off against weak backup quarterbacks this time around.
Look, maybe I’m crazy, but I’m not all that intimidated by this New Orleans offense at the moment. Jameis Winston is a notorious Falcon killer and I do worry about Alvin Kamara, Chris Olave, and the return of slant-running king Michael Thomas, but this does not look like a superlative Saints O. The Falcons’ defense, meanwhile, looks like it won’t be nearly as decrepit as it was late last year, and it has the youth and upside to be much better than that.
I can’t say the Falcons’ defense has an advantage—that would be foolish—but despite New Orleans’ modest strengths up front, I think this will prove to be a pretty even matchup on the day. The Falcons will make their share of mistakes, but barring the kind of listless initial effort we saw against the Eagles in Week 1 a year ago, they should be able to keep the Saints from the kind of big scoring bursts that will doom them on Sunday.