The New Orleans Saints will play their second game in five days tonight in a primetime matchup against the divisional rival Atlanta Falcons. In their last meeting, New Orleans emerged victorious, giving the Falcons their first loss of the 2012 season. This time around, the Saints must win in order to keep their slim playoff hopes alive. It is truly do or die for the Saints, who must win out in order to get to 10 wins and a possible Wild Card berth.
Defensively, the Saints must resemble a unit that posted impressive performances against the Raiders and Falcons in order to come away with the victory. Eliminating the big play in the passing game as well as keeping the opposing rushing attack at bay will be key if New Orleans wants to win tonight.
Fact: Matt Ryan will pass for more than 300 yards against the Saints’ swiss cheese-esque defense this evening. New Orleans has had trouble defending the pass this season; the unit ranks near the bottom of the league (30th to be exact) in regards to passing yardage allowed, giving up an astonishing 298.3 yards per game. Nonetheless, the defense has made big redzone stops as of late, coming away with either huge turnovers or limiting teams to field goal attempts. That stalwart redzone defense will surely be needed against Matt Ryan and the Falcons, who currently average 26.7 points per game (8th league wide).
Speaking of turnovers, the Saints will need to come away with a few in order to win tonight. Matt Ryan has had trouble with giveaways lately (7 interceptions in the last 3 games isn’t a pretty statistic), meaning that the New Orleans secondary should be keenly aware whenever the ball is in the air. Tipped ball interceptions were especially plentiful during the Oakland game, and Saints should look for opportunities there.
New Orleans must also do a better job of containing TE Tony Gonzales, who ripped the Saints’ secondary to shreds during the last outing. Either Roman Harper or Malcolm Jenkins will be tasked with covering Gonzales in man coverage, and both will need to do an excellent job in coverage (especially Harper) in order for the defense to hold.
Lastly, limiting the big play must be a responsibility that is taken very seriously by the entire defense. The defensive line must get pressure on Ryan consistently, limiting his time to find the deep receiver. The linebacking corp must also do a good job when it comes to blitz gap assignments on passing downs; well-timed blitzes will throw off Ryan and the entire passing game, but having those same blitzes fall short will allow for the quarterback to find the open receiver with great ease. Finally, the secondary must do a better job keeping up with the speedy Atlanta receiving corps. Keeping the receiver in front will do wonders for the secondary and dampen the explosiveness of the Falcon passing attack.
The Saints’ run defense has actually done a decent job the past few weeks in terms of limiting the opposition. The unit’s highlight performance came against the Falcons in their earlier meeting this year, as Michael Turner was rendered useless, totaling only 15 yards on 13 carries. That’s a very shocking statistic, especially when you factor in that power running had been the calling card of the Atlanta offensive scheme up until very recently.
Turner has regressed this season. Atlanta knows this, and subsequently has started to feature backup/change of pace RB Jacquizz Rodgers more in the offense. Rodgers serves as the lighting to Turner’s thunder, and will see more snaps as the season rolls into its final month. Look for Rodgers tonight, especially in the redzone, where he has the speed and quickness to elude linebackers and even some defensive backs. Keeps tabs on him will be very important.
For New Orleans, sticking with the same model that led to success against Atlanta earlier this season should be the best course of action. Maintaining gap integrity on the defensive line, avoiding missed tackles, and being the more physical team up front will allow for the Saints to limit the Atlanta running game. If the Saints can take away the run from the Falcons, this will force Matt Ryan to throw more often than he really wants to. This creates some positives for the defense, as it allows for the pass rush to develop and allows for the time of possession battle to fall in the favor of New Orleans. If this happens, the chances for overall game success should lean more towards the Saints.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Saints Nickel Cornerback X
It is still unclear as to if Corey White will play tonight (as time of publication, he was still listed as questionable). Elbert Mack is expected to be available, as he is recovering from a concussion. If White is out, expect to see Johnny Patrick, who filled in nicely last week, in the nickel corner role. Whoever gets the snaps will need to both act as an effective coverage corner against multiple receiver sets, and a blitzer, when called upon. Matt Ryan will certainly seek out the nickel corner when available, so a strong showing will be needed for victory.
DT Akiem Hicks
Hicks, a rookie DT out of tiny Regina, has been a rare bright spot along the Saints’ defensive line. His size (6’5”) has presented opposing offensive lines a slew of challenges on the inside, and gives the defense flexibility on run defense, acting as a pseudo nose-tackle. He also has great potential as a pass rushing DT, as he can be consistently found in the backfield on passing downs. When the defense rotates Hicks in, he constantly demands double teams. Getting him involved early would be huge for a New Orleans defense that needs any edge possible against Atlanta.
Player X That Is Covering Tony Gonzales
The biggest issue for the Saints’ defense will be Tony Gonzales. Who will cover him? Roman Harper has issues in pass coverage. Malcolm Jenkins usually is in a zone role. Most linebackers are too slow to keep up. All defensive backs are too small. Nevertheless, the Saints need to find a way to stop Gonzales. Harper will most likely be the player assigned that challenge, but expect to see Spags to send help when needed, especially in the redzone. Stop Gonzales, and New Orleans will win the ballgame.
Although the Saints enter this game coming off of an emotional loss to the San Francisco 49ers only 4 days ago, this team will be ready to play. The entire organization knows what is exactly at stake, as any loss at this point in the season will almost assuredly erase any hope for the playoffs. On both ends of the ball, the Saints will look sharp, giving Atlanta their second loss of the season and keeping the possibility of a Saints home Superbowl still alive.
Saints 30, Falcons 21