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Battle in the trenches vs. Saints will predict Falcons 2022 season outlook

Atlanta’s initial showing against New Orleans will set the tone for what’s ahead.

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NFL: Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

We’ll learn a lot about this 2022 Atlanta Falcons team based on their performance in Week 1 against the New Orleans Saints, due to the challenges the team will see in the trenches from their hated rival.

How good the Falcons will be this season along the line of scrimmage will have a significant impact on their overall success. As of right now, the quality of their line play remains the biggest mystery heading into the regular season.

This is a question mark largely because the Falcons opted against making major upgrades to their offensive line this past offseason. We know there will be at least one noteworthy change to their starting lineup, with journeyman Elijah Wilkinson unseating incumbent left guard Jalen Mayfield in a training camp competition. Yet Wilkinson is an unknown commodity a left guard, having zero career snaps at that position across five years in the NFL before this summer.

It remains to be seen how significant an upgrade recently announced starting center Drew Dalman will be over incumbent Matt Hennessy. The fact that we only got the announcement this past week after a months-long competition suggests any improvement from Dalman may be marginal. And of course, we know the other problem spot up front from a year ago at right tackle will look the same with Kaleb McGary in the starting lineup.

The Falcons chose to internally develop upgrades at their biggest area of weakness, and any jaded Falcons fan such as yours truly can tell you that hasn’t often worked out in the team’s favor in the past.

Falcons have historically struggled vs. Saints pass rush

The Falcons had given up five or more sacks in at least one matchup against the Saints for four consecutive years until that streak thankfully came to an end last season. Notably, in their last 17 matchups against the Saints, the Falcons have given up a total of 56 sacks and 125 quarterback hits.

It should be noted that the Chicago Bears led the NFL last year with 58 sacks allowed and the Falcons gave up the most hits with 130. This is proof that the biggest challenge for the Falcons when they face their rivals over the past decade has neither been quarterback Drew Brees or head coach Sean Payton, but rather the fact that they often look like the worst offensive line in football against New Orleans.

The expectation is that having a more mobile quarterback in Marcus Mariota will alleviate some of these concerns over the Falcons’ pass protection. However, there is limited evidence to back up such a claim.

Pro Football Focus measures how often a quarterback is sacked when pressured in their pressure-to-sack percentage. For his career, former Falcons starter Matt Ryan’s pressure-to-sack percentage is 15.5 percent. Comparatively, Mariota’s is 23.6 percent, meaning that theoretically if both were pressured the same amount of times, Mariota would be sacked at a rate 52 percent higher than Ryan's.

That doesn’t bode well against this particular Week 1 matchup. So it’s not only critical that the offensive line keeps pressure off Mariota, but if/when it comes, it doesn’t result in negative plays like sacks.

And it’s not just the Falcons offensive line that faces challenges this week against the Saints, but also the defensive line.

Defensive line must slow down Saints' ground game

Another concern for this team entering the summer is how much improvement can we expect from the team’s front after a 2021 season in which they finished dead last in the NFL with 18 sacks and 27th in run defense based on rushing yards allowed.

And the last time the Falcons squared off against the Saints in Week 18, they were pounded for a total of 195 rushing yards. One might assume that was due to the presence of the Saints version of Feleipe Franks in Taysom Hill starting that game. Yet Hill was held to just 18 rushing yards in that game. Rather, it was running back Alvin Kamara’s 146 rushing yards that the Falcons found impossible to stop on that particular Sunday.

In fact, over the final four games of 2021, the Falcons gave up 720 rushing yards or 180 yards per game. The Pittsburgh Steelers sported the NFL’s worst run defense a year ago and allowed an average of 146.1 rushing yards per game.

And it should be noted that similarly to the offensive line, the Falcons decided to mostly run it back with the same players along their defensive front that were primarily responsible for that abysmal final month of 2021.

Over the final four games of 2021, Grady Jarrett, Ta’Quon Graham, Mike Pennel, and Anthony Rush saw the majority of snaps along their defensive line’s interior. Pennel is the only one not returning, as the rest are expected to be starters this season.

Graham looked improved over the summer and Rush had a significant hand in thwarting the Saints rushing attack in the Falcons’ Week 9 win over them last year. Both players and the team’s unproven depth will have to step up if the team plans to slow down Kamara.

Last season’s Saints team was compelled to rely on their running game due to their abysmal receiving corps and the fact that in both matchups against the Falcons they were without starting quarterback Jameis Winston.

So it’s not a coincidence that the Falcons won their Week 9 matchup where they held the Saints rushing attack to a more respectable 109 yards, versus the Week 18 loss where the Falcons were gashed on the ground.

The healthy returns of not only Winston but also wide receiver Michael Thomas, along with the additions of wideouts Jarvis Landry and Chris Olave this offseason, means the 2022 Saints won’t be forced to be as one-dimensional.

Slowing down that Saints passing attack will be challenging enough, but even I can feel somewhat optimistic with a revamped Falcons secondary and hopefully an improved pass rush. But they cannot make it easier for their opponent by allowing them to have unchecked success on the ground. As cliche as it sounds, the first priority for the Falcons' defense will be stopping the run.

A good Week 1 will boost confidence for the rest of 2022

If they can accomplish that, coupled with competent protection from the offensive line, it will be a strong signal that the Falcons are poised to have a better season than some prognosticators expect.

The Saints aren’t the only challenge this team will face in the trenches this season, as they’ll also face a who’s who of premier NFL defensive linemen in 2022, especially early in the year. Aaron Donald, Myles Garrett, Vita Vea, and Nick Bosa all are on the docket over the first six weeks of the season.

If this offensive line can answer the bell against the Saints, it will build confidence for those future matchups.

The same goes for the defensive line and the run defense. After the Saints, opponents like the Seattle Seahawks, Cleveland Browns, and San Francisco 49ers all ranked among the top 11 teams in rushing a year ago. If the Falcons can slow down the Saints running attack, they should be able to stymie those teams, as well.

While there remain several questions about this year’s Falcons team beyond their play in the trenches, the line play remains by far the biggest one. If they provide an adequate answer on Sunday against the Saints, it will go a long way to bolstering confidence for even a jaded fan like myself in the current regime.

Where is your confidence level in the Falcons’ trench play? Do you expect the offensive line to hold up against the Saints' pass rush? Can the defensive line slow down Alvin Kamara again?