Greetings! There was real, live NFL football on Thursday night in Denver, and the Falcons are set to kick-off their regular season in New Orleans on Sunday. In case you missed it, we
Opponent - New Orleans Saints (7-9 in 2012)
Time/TV - 1:00 PM ET, FOX (Regional)
Falcons Offense vs. Saints Defense
Strength versus weakness. For reference, the Falcons offense was 8th in the NFL in yards and 7th in points scored, while the Saints defense was 32nd (dead last) in the NFL in yards (by over 55 yards per game) and 31st in points allowed. The difference there is fairly concrete, but when you factor in that the Falcons offense made an upgrade at running back while the Saints have already lost 3 potential starters to injury.
The Saints were equally terrible in the running game and the passing game defensively, and this should be an opportunity for “video game” numbers. Matt Ryan threw for 411 yards during the team’s only trip to New Orleans last season, and while he may not reach that number, he’ll be able to throw the ball at will against this secondary. Roddy White is limited a bit due to injury, so I would look for the Birds to target both Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez in a major way at their specific places on the field.
The biggest focus, for me anyway, is going to be on Steven Jackson. New Orleans allowed over 147 yards per game on the ground in 2012, and if Jackson can get loose, it will open up the game plan for Ryan and the receivers. This is our first chance for a full workload for Jackson, and frankly, his age-30 season will be marked by whether he can hold up to the pounding. I would expect to see some Jacquizz Rodgers, but 20+ carries from Jackson should be the norm against a team who can’t stop the run.
Falcons Defense vs. Saints Offense
Here’s where the worries begin. For as bad as the Saints defense is, their offense is virtually the opposite. Even without the services of their head coach and play-caller, Sean Payton, the Saints finished 2nd in the league in yards and 3rd in the league in scoring last season. Now, Payton is back, their backfield is healthy, and they picked up two young receivers that could make some helpful plays.
The Falcons were worse against the pass than the run last season, and we’ll start there. This is going to be a huge test for the linebacking corps, as they were famously torched by both Zach Miller and Vernon Davis in the 2012 playoffs. On Sunday, they’ll get a look at the game’s best tight end in Jimmy Graham, and the goal is to hold him under 100 yards. That tells you all you need to know.
On the outside, the Saints aren’t terribly explosive with Marques Colston and Lance Moore, but both guys are efficient, quality options. The aforementioned young guys are Kenny Stills and Nick Toon, and while it is too early to tell how they’ll use them, they could be field-stretchers for Brees and company. Speaking of Brees, it virtually doesn’t matter who he is throwing the ball to, as he is excellent, and with Payton’s return, you’d have to think he is that much more dangerous.
The running game for the Saints isn’t terribly frightening, but it is unique. Darren Sproles is one of the best pass-catchers from the running back position in the league (86 and 75 catches over the past 2 seasons, respectively), and he provides a wrinkle that few teams can show. Mark Ingram is the default starter, but I’m not sure the former Heisman winner is a terribly good NFL running back, so that doesn’t worry me. The third of the trio is Pierre Thomas, who I honestly believe is better than Ingram, but I don’t think the Saints agree, and I don’t think we’ll see too much of the former Illinois product.
This is a huge test for the young cornerbacks (Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant), as well as a referendum on whether Osi Umenyiora and company can pressure the quarterback. Every position group will be tested against one of the game’s best offense, and with all summer to stew after the Sean Payton suspension, the Saints will be angry and ready.
As usual, we’ll turn to our friends in Las Vegas for some perspective (they are, in fact, smarter than everyone else), and the Saints are a 3-point favorite with an over/under of 54. Basically, that provides analysis that the two teams are dead-even (with the Saints being at home), and I would disagree with that. The Falcons are the slightly better team in my view, and short of this turning into a full-blown shoot-out, I would lean toward Matt Ryan and company pulling out a road win to start the season.