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Saints Defense vs. Falcons Offense Preview

In the wake of a season-ending injury to QB Jameis Winston, is the New Orleans defense prepared to be a dominant force against bitter rival Atlanta?
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The 5-2 New Orleans Saints host the 3-4 Atlanta Falcons Sunday afternoon in the Ceasars Superdome. It’s a renewal of one of the NFL's most intense rivalries.

Atlanta holds a 53-51 edge in the series, and the teams are tied, 26-26, when they play in New Orleans. The Saints are 20-8 against the Falcons under coach Sean Payton since 2006, including a 10-4 record at home.

There has been plenty of offensive firepower on both sides throughout this series. However, both teams look vastly different on that side of the ball in 2021.

Atlanta traded franchise great WR Julio Jones this offseason. Star WR Calvin Ridley has stepped away from football for personal reasons. The Falcons still have QB Matt Ryan, who is capable of putting up big numbers in his 14th NFL season.

New Orleans QB Drew Brees retired this offseason and has been without injured WR Michael Thomas all season. A rash of injuries throughout the offensive unit has also created some inconsistencies uncharacteristic for a Sean Payton team.

The Saints have been dominant on the defensive side this season. It's a unit that has developed into one of the league's best over the last four years. After a season-ending injury to QB Jameis Winston, the team will need that trend to continue for a fifth consecutive playoff berth.

SAINTS DEFENSE VS. FALCONS OFFENSE

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) releases the ball as he is hit by New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis (56). Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) releases the ball as he is hit by New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis (56). Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans Defensive Rankings

  • Points Allowed = 4th (18.3 per game)
  • Total Yards = 10th (344 yards/game)
  • Passing Yards = 22nd (264.9 yards/game)
  • Rush Yards = 2nd (79.4 yards/game)
  • 3rd Downs =:10th (37.5%)
  • Red Zone = 1st (43.8%)

Thought to be the strength of the team coming into the year, the Saints defensive line struggled to get consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. That’s changed over the last two games after getting DE Marcus Davenport back from injury and DT David Onyemata from suspension.

New Orleans has 16 sacks and 47 QB hits through seven games. Eight of those sacks have come in the last two contests, with the Saints causing the type of disruption that helped them rank fifth against the pass in 2020.

DE/DT Tanoh Kpassagnon has quietly had a standout season and leads the team with 4 sacks. Pro Bowl DE Cameron Jordan has been criticized in some circles for lack of production, but leads the defense with 9 QB hits and 15 pressures.

The return of the disruptive Davenport and Onyemata up front forces opponents to leave at least one of the talented Saints pass rushers in one-on-one matchups. Jordan, Davenport, Onyemata, and Kpassagnon have also proven capable of beating double-team blocking.

Coordinator Dennis Allen runs an aggressive scheme and won't hesitate to blitz in any situation. Safeties Chauncey Gardner-Johnson or Malcolm Jenkins are often brought off the edge as extra rushers, and LB Demario Davis has had a monstrous season.

Davis leads the defense in tackles, tackles for loss (9), and has 3 sacks, 7 QB hits, and four passes broken up. He’s a dominant run defender, relentless in pursuit, and one of the league's best linebackers in coverage.

Davis is complemented at linebacker by two outstanding athletes in Kwon Alexander and rookie second-round choice Pete Werner. Both players are terrific in coverage and have the speed to track down ball carriers in the open field.

The New Orleans front seven creates havoc for opposing quarterbacks, but also shut down the run consistently. The Saints have been one of the NFL's best run defenses for the last four years and have given up a league-low 3.5 yards per carry this season.

Defensive tackles Shy Tuttle and Montravius Adams haven't been big factors as pass rushers, but get outstanding interior push against the run. The team's secondary swarms to the ball to finish plays that their talented front doesn't snuff out.

While the pass rush got off to a slow start, the Saints defensive backs emerged as a team strength. New Orleans has allowed three 300-yard passers, but allow just 61% completion percentage and have intercepted a league-best 11 passes.

New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore (23) covers former Falcons receiver Julio Jones (11). Credit: thespun.com

New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore (23) covers former Falcons receiver Julio Jones (11). Credit: thespun.com

Elite CB Marshon Lattimore, like teammate Demario Davis, is playing like a possible Defensive Player of the Year candidate. 

Lattimore has allowed less than 48% completion percentage when targeted and has broken up an NFL-high ten throws. He routinely shuts down the league's top wideouts in one-on-one coverage, allowing the defense to be more aggressive in coverage packages.

Rookie CB Paulson Adebo has developed into a great complement to Lattimore. He’s surrendered less than 63% completion percentage when targeted and has 2 interceptions. Veteran CB Bradley Roby provides strong depth against deeper receiving corps, while Gardner-Johnson handles slot duties.

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Malcolm Jenkins and FS Marcus Williams are among the league's best safety tandems. Williams has elite range, ball skills, and anticipation, allowing the corners to play more aggressively underneath. P.J. Williams, who leads the team with 3 interceptions, provides versatile depth at multiple positions.

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) throws a pass against the New Orleans Saints. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) throws a pass against the New Orleans Saints. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta Offensive Rankings

  • Points = 21st (21.1 points per game)
  • Total Yards = 23rd (334 yards/game)
  • Passing Yards = 14th (247 yards/game)
  • Rushing Yards = 27th (87 yards/game)
  • 3rd Downs = 7th (44.2%)
  • Red Zone = 14th (63.6%)

Thirty-six-year-old QB Matt Ryan remains the one constant for a Falcons offense that has struggled to generate points at times. Ryan has completed 68.6% of his throws for 1,814 yards, 13 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions.

Ryan has been sacked 12 times and often been under heavy pressure. The Falcons offensive line continues to have major issues, despite the presence of former first-round picks LT Jake Mathews, RT Kaleb McGary, and RG Chris Lindstrom.

Atlanta's rushing attack has done little to support their veteran quarterback. The Falcons have the second fewest rushing touchdowns (3) and have averaged over 3.7 yards per carry, 29th in the league.

Dynamic WR/RB Cordarrelle Patterson leads the Falcons with 268 yards and two scores, averaging 4.2/carry. Patterson, one of the league's best kick returners, is an explosive open field threat used all over the formation. He’s also Atlanta's second leading receiver with 32 catches for 333 yards and a team-high 5 touchdowns.

Seven-year veteran RB Mike Davis came over from division rival Carolina to the Atlanta's lead back. Davis has 258 rushing yards and 110 more on 23 receptions, but has averaged just 3.4/carry. The Falcons have rushed for over 100 yards as a team just twice this season.

With no running game and without his best two wideouts in Jones and Ridley, Ryan has had to spread the ball around more than usual. WR Russell Gage missed time with injuries early in the year. He's an underrated threat that has 9 catches for 95 yards in three games of action this year.

Veteran WR Tajae Sharpe, who has 15 receptions for 158 yards, seems primed for a bigger offensive role without Ridley. Also watch for physical WR Christian Blake and deep threat Olamide Zaccheaus to make plays.

Atlanta Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts (8) makes a catch against Carolina safety Jeremy Chinn (21). Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts (8) makes a catch against Carolina safety Jeremy Chinn (21). Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The focus of the Atlanta offense has shifted to rookie TE Kyle Pitts, the number 4 pick in the draft. Pitts is a terrific receiver and is a huge threat from off the line of scrimmage or lined out wide.

Pitts is the team’s leading receiver with 33 catches for 484 yards.  He presents a nearly impossible matchup at 6’6” and 246-Lbs with sprinters speed.

Fourth-year veteran TE Hayden Hurst provides a lethal 1-2 punch at tight end for the Falcons.  Hurst, who has 18 catches for 142 yards and a score, is also a precise route runner who has the athleticism to beat defenses deep. 

What to Watch

New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) sacks Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2). Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY

New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) sacks Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2). Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY

Matt Ryan has averaged 294 yards and has 44 touchdowns with 18 interceptions in 25 career meetings against the Saints. However, he has been sacked 63 times in those games and has just a 9-16 record. Since 2017, Ryan has thrown 10 interceptions and suffered 36 sacks in 8 games against New Orleans.

The Saints have sacked Ryan 20 times and limited him to just 3 touchdowns in their last three contests against the Falcons. Cameron Jordan has had a Hall of Fame career against Atlanta alone.

In 20 meetings against them, Jordan has 21 sacks, 37 QB hits, 23 tackles for loss, and seven games with multiple sacks. Thirteen of those takedowns, along with 21 QB hits, have come in his last seven outings against Ryan.

Jordan isn't the only disruption Atlanta's mediocre offensive line must contend with. Davenport and Onyemata were immediate difference makers in their return to the lineup. Kpassagnon, Davis, and rookie DE Payton Turner also look to disrupt the Falcons backfield.

The Saints look to have a significant advantage against Atlanta's punchless running game, making matters worse for Ryan if they are limited to a one-dimensional attack.

New Orleans Saints free safety Marcus Williams (43) intercepts a pass intended for Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley (18). Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans Saints free safety Marcus Williams (43) intercepts a pass intended for Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley (18). Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Pitts is a matchup problem for any defense, but New Orleans has the coverage talent to contain him. The Saints have shut down an impressive array of receivers like Davante Adams, Robby Anderson, Terry McLaurin, D.K. Metcalf, Tyler Lockett, and Mike Evans. They cannot get complacent against Ryan and his group of receivers.

New Orleans stepped up their defensive intensity from an already red-line level after the season-ending injury to Jameis Winston last week. For the Saints to be a true playoff contender, they must match that level of intensity and disruption against the Falcons and for the rest of the year. 

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