NFL Week 18 is here! It’s the final week of the regular season—and probably the final week for the Atlanta Falcons, assuming the Bucs take care of business against the Panthers. Atlanta faces the New Orleans Saints in a rematch that could be crucial for control of the NFC South should the Bucs falter, but is far more critical for Arthur Smith’s job security than anything else.
Here at The Falcoholic, we like to think we keep you incredibly well-informed on all things Falcons. We’re not nearly as diligent in covering the Saints, so I’ve once again enlisted the help of New Orleans expert Luke Hubbard. Lester is contributing writer over at Canal Street Chronicles, SB Nation’s site covering all things New Orleans Saints.
I brought five questions to Luke on the Saints struggles to win games despite good stats on offense and defense, the questions swirling around Derek Carr, the issues of the defense against the run, and more.
1. The Saints are having a great statistical season on defense and a solid one on offense...but are 8-8 and very likely to miss the playoffs despite taking on one of the easiest schedules in the NFL. What has been the biggest issue for New Orleans this season?
Luke Hubbard: The main issue is they’ve lost way too many games they should’ve won. They were up 17-0 against the Packers in the fourth quarter in week four and ended up losing that game after Derek Carr got hurt. They should’ve beat the Texans a few weeks later, but their inability to score points in the red zone bit them in the butt. They also should’ve beat the Lions, they played better ball for 45+ minutes, but the first seven minutes of the game that included a pick six and the defense letting up 14 points made that game nearly impossible to come back in. That’s three games right there that they should’ve won, but they just couldn’t get the job done. If they won those games, they’d be firmly in the playoffs right now.
I would also put coaching up there with one of the biggest reasons they’re 8-8. The offensive play calling has been atrocious in almost every game. The plays are bland and they just don’t get their skill players in the right positions to make plays. Also, Dennis Allen is a defensive minded head coach, but his defense has honestly been the weak point of this team for some time (outside the Panthers and Giants games, but those don’t really count because their offenses are so bad). The Saints have the talent to be a playoff team, but the coaching has just been horrendous.
2. Derek Carr seems to have been a massive disappointment in 2023. What’s gone wrong with that signing, and is there any hope for Carr going into 2024?
LH: Well, I talked about Pete Carmichael already, but I’d definitely put a lot of the blame on him. His play calling has been horrible. He’s misused Alvin Kamara, Taysom Hill (except a handful of games), Jimmy Graham and Rashid Shaheed all year long. He also uses next to no pre snap motion or play action. His system is just so basic and archaic that it’s hard to watch and very easy to defend. But on the side of Carr, he hasn’t done himself any favors either. He’s had a few good games, but the same problems that plagued his career in Oakland/Las Vegas have come up in New Orleans as well. He’s statistically one of the worst red zone quarterbacks in the league, and that shows in the Saints red zone touchdown percentage of 51.85%. He also misses some very routine throws (some of which have resulted in injuries to receivers). He just hasn’t lived up to the 150 million dollar deal he signed.
I will say, I think there is still some hope for Carr, but that isn’t what most of the fan base wants. He’s not going to be Drew Brees, but I think with a new OC, he could be a competent signal caller (though, when you give someone 150 mil, you expect more than that). He will be the QB in New Orleans next season pretty much no matter what, and he should have a new OC, so we’ll see if he can deliver next year.
3. The Saints defense has largely been a strength, but New Orleans has struggled against the run this season. The Falcons put up 228 rushing yards the last time these teams met, and the ground game will once again be key to an Atlanta victory. Have the Saints made any changes or improved the unit at all since Week 12?
LH: They’ve actually had some pretty good games against the run in their last three contests. On the year, they’re giving up 122 yards per game on the ground, but in their last three, that number has dropped to 83. It is partially due to their opponents during that span (Panthers, Giants and Bucs), but the defensive line has been much better than earlier this year. I still think the Falcons can have their way on the ground, but I don’t see another 228 yard performance in the cards for this one.
4. New Orleans has had a terrific season against the pass. What’s been the secret to the team’s success? Has it been more the play of the secondary, or the pass rush getting home?
LH: The Saints pass rush is actually one of the worst in the league. They ranked 31st in sacks at one point, but their seven sack performance against the Giants have inflated those numbers. The key has been the corners. Marshon Lattimore was playing at a high level before his injury, and at the midway point of the season, Paulson Adebo was absolutely balling out. However, the secondary had some games mid year where they really struggled. They’ve gotten back on track in the last three games, but I’m not 100% convinced they’re back to playing like they did in the first few games of the year.
5. The Saints are currently 3.5-point home favorites in Week 18. What’s your prediction for Sunday’s game?
LH: The first time these two teams played, I thought the Saints would win pretty handily. Desmond Ridder doesn’t move me as a passer and I didn’t see the Falcons rushing for 228 yards, but I was wrong. Once again I feel pretty confident in the Saints winning this game, and so does the fanbase, but that’s what worries me. I don’t like it when everyone on Saints twitter (or X) thinks they’re going to win, because that’s when they lose most often. I’ll stick with my gut and say the Saints cover, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they meltdown and lose.
Many thanks to Luke for taking the time to answer my questions. If you’re in the mood for a Bears perspective on things, follow Canal Street Chronicles at @SaintsCSC.
Looking for more Falcons-Saints coverage? Check out our Dirty Birds & Brews game preview show.