Thursday night’s matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints revealed new details of the NFC South.
Firstly, the Saints are back and have a chance at the division title. Secondly, the Falcons have major weaknesses that will prevent them from holding on to the top spot in the NFC South.
The Defense Keeps on Marching
Injuries have held the Saints back all year. The offensive line continues to battle injuries as third string left tackle, Tony Hills, stepped in Thursday night for Andrus Peat, the Saints 2015 first-round draft pick, who had been filling in for Terron Armstead. Mike Triplett of ESPN reported that Peat could miss four weeks with an MCL Sprain.
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Along with the injuries to the offensive line, the defense has dealt with it’s fair share and is finally getting healthy.
Most notably, Jarius Byrd, has begun to string multiple starts together. After being the huge free agent signing last year, he has only played seven games out of a possible 22 for the Saints and has yet to record an interception during that time.
Dannell Ellerbe, the linebacker the Saints traded for, has begun to adjust to his new team after playing three games. On Thursday, he forced a key fumble early to prevent the Falcons from scoring towards the end of the second quarter.
The most important development for this defense was their pass rush. The unit sacked Matt Ryan five times, three of which came from Cameron Jordan who had one sack prior to the game. Those five sacks pushed the Saints’ season total to 12.
Rob Ryan’s defense limited Matt Ryan to 295 yards, but was unable to stop the run, again. The Saints give up 138.2 yards per game on the ground and the Falcons enjoyed racking up 150 yards last night. This number is more impressive due to the fact the Falcons were playing from behind the entire night.
A Recipe for Success
The Saints do not need a defense that gets a lot of stops. When the offense is rolling, as it was on Thursday, Drew Bress and company can put up a lot of points and pick apart defenses.
Instead, what the Saints need is a defense that forces turnovers. It does not seem like they can stop an offense like the Broncos, but they certainly can get the ball back.
The Falcons fumbled against New Orleans and lost three. Ryan accounted for three of those five fumbles. Towards the end of the game, Jordan stripped Ryan, shoved him away, and dove on the ball. It looked like Jordan took Ryan’s lunch money.
More important than the defensive success, was the success of Drew Brees and the offense. Brees was sacked once on Thursday.
He looked comfortable in the pocket and spread the ball around (with an emphasis on Benjamin Watson). He never needed to heave it downfield, but rather, he relied on short and accurate passes.
Brees finished last night with 312 yards, one TD, and went 30-of-39 (good for about a 77% completion rating). He looks to have developed chemistry with Willie Snead, who now has at least four receptions in all but one game. There is a feeling, however, that this offense can still get better.
Marques Colston is injured and has not played up to his abilities, yet. While his yardage has dropped off the past two seasons, he still has only gone below 900 yards once in his 10 years in the league.
The biggest concern must be the run game and CJ Spiller’s involvement. Mark Ingram leads the way with 307 yards, and averages 3.5 yards per carry, while Spiller has yet to become that breakout star like Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles were years ago.
He only has 41 rushing yards, and without that one 80-yard reception, he only has 69 receiving yards.
After trading for Max Unger, the Saints must be frustrated with the lack of run support. However, Ingram has done a good job finding the end zone.
He and Spiller play a role in the passing game as well. When everything comes together, this offense should be one of the top 5 in the league, especially if Thursday was any indication of it’s potential.
If the Saints can continue to force turnovers and allow Brees to have the ball in his hands, then they can continue to win, especially when considering their schedule. Of their remaining opponents, only four teams have winning records: the Falcons, Panthers (who they almost beat with Luck McCown under center), Giants, and Colts.
A Stoppable Offense
The Falcons took the season by storm after starting 5-0. They were a team who went 6-10 last year, including a five-game losing streak.
This year, they came out scoring in bunches from the beginning, showing off (possibly) the league’s best receiver in Julio Jones, and then followed that with Devonta Freeman.
There is no denying the capabilities of the Falcons’ offense. Julio Jones is easily in the conversation for the best receiver, but has been injured recently and has strung three games together with less than 100 yards receiving. (Let me be clear, Julio Jones is great and is not the problem).
The problem with the Falcons is they only have Julio Jones, and teams should be “okay” with getting beat by one receiver. He’s playing at a superstar level and will get catches and yards, but teams will need to know they cannot stop him, completely.
It’s a similar situation to Calvin Johnson in 2012. He had 1,964 receiving yards and could not be stopped, but the went 4-12.
Obviously, the Falcons have been better than the 2012 Lions, but they do have issues. Who is Ryan’s second option?
Freeman has been solid in the passing game, but otherwise there is nobody else for Ryan to throw to. Leonard Hankerson had one 103-yard game, but without that he only has 188 yards over five games.
Jacob Tamme has been a nice surprise, but suffers a similar problem to Hankerson. He had two games of 77 and 94 yards, but then had three game with 19, 8, and 32 yards. Also, he’s yet to record a TD. And then everyone knows about Roddy White, although he did score a TD on Thursday.
The Falcons’ offense will continue to be one of the best in the league, however, it does have real issues.
Matt Ryan lacks targets and could use slightly better pass protection (currently been sacked 14 times), but some of those sacks can be explained by the need for different receivers. Thursday, Ryan held the ball too long and suffered both sacks and strips as a result. He could not find anyone open.
These issues could begin to play bigger roles if Jones remains injured. The Falcons were very close to losing to the Redskins last week and suffered their first loss against the Saints. If teams being to figure out how to defend the Falcons, then expect to see even more losses pile up.
A Lucky 5-1
The Falcons have had a lot of luck to begin the season. This is not a criticism, every team relies on luck to some extent (especially the Colts).
Looking at their first six opponents, they played weak Texans and Redskins sides, stole one in the fourth quarter from the Giants, went against Brandon Weeden, and nearly blew a lead to the Eagles.
They’ve had a very easy schedule thus far, and it remains so for the rest of the season. There is no doubt that they will make the playoffs, but with the Panthers and Saints, they might not win the NFC South, especially considering their weak defense.
Not Quite a Replica
Dan Quinn, former defensive coordinator of the Seahawks, has done a terrific job as a head coach, but there is no denying that this defense is much weaker than what he’s used to. He is not able to create a replica of the Seahawks with the Falcons.
The Flacons surrender 23.8 points per game. They are first in rush yards per game with 78.8, but are 29th in passing yards per game with 290.7. One reason for that number is the lack of pressure on the QB.
As a defense, they only have seven sacks, tied for 27th in the league. They do have six interceptions and six forced fumbles, but if they keep allowing quarterbacks to have time in the pocket it is only a matter of time before their opponents take advantage (especially seasoned veterans such as Brees).
Again, look at their opponents’ starting QBs: Sam Bradford (first game of the season), Eli Manning, Brian Hoyer, Kirk Cousins, and Drew Brees.
Their two toughest matchups were Manning and Brees. Manning and the Giants lost in the fourth quarter after the Falcons scored two TDs. The Flacons did, however, lose to Brees and the Saints.
The Falcons will rely heavily on Ryan, Jones, and Freeman for the remainder of the season. They have the luxury of an easy remaining schedule, but with flaws on defense and without a second wide receiver, they will struggle to hold onto the top spot in the NFC South.
The Panthers’ defense has been great, and Cam Newton is playing like an MVP, however, the Falcons, Panthers, and Bucs need to be afraid if the Saints have found their footing.
Prior to Thursday Night, this division looked like a two-team race between the Falcons and Panthers. Now, it’s gotten a lot more interesting and Miami may have just lost their shot at Sean Payton.