On Sunday, a renewal of one of the NFL's most underrated rivalries will occur when the New Orleans Saints host the Atlanta Falcons. The Saints enter the game with a 7-2 record and winners of their last six to sit in the NFC South's first place. New Orleans has taken control of the division with one of the league's most balanced offenses, but a unit that faces an enormous question coming into this game.
Legendary quarterback Drew Brees will miss several weeks with a rib injury suffered in last Sunday's win over San Francisco that landed him on injured reserve. Without him, the Saints will go with a combination of Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston at quarterback, with Hill expected to get the start against Atlanta.
New Orleans currently ranks 12th in total offense, averaging 373 yards per game, and their 30.1 points per outing is fourth best in the league. They have a 47.9% conversion rate on 3rd downs, ranking fifth in the league. Their 65% red-zone conversion percentage ranks 12th, and they've turned the ball over just nine times this year.
The Saints will face a 3-6 Falcons team that started 0-5 but is 3-1 since firing Dan Quinn and replacing him with defensive coordinator Raheem Morris as head coach. Atlanta's defense ranks 30th in the NFL, allowing 410 yards and 27.9 points per contest.
They rank 8th in 3rd down defense at 38.7%, but their red-zone defense is the second-worst in the NFL. The Falcons have forced 10 turnovers this season and have given up an average of 22.6 points over their last five contests.
The New Orleans offense will have a different look without the Hall of Famer Brees behind center. Let’s see how they match up against Atlanta's defense.
THE PASSING GAME
Brees led the league in completion percentage (73.5%) and threw 18 touchdown passes and 3 interceptions while averaging 265 yards per game for the league's 15th ranked passing attack. Taysom Hill has been used mostly as a gadget player, completing 10 of 18 career passes (55.8%) for 86 yards in three seasons. He has a powerful arm, but has not displayed accuracy or the ability to read defenses as a passer.
Jameis Winston replaced Brees in the second half last week and has teased with his tremendous physical skills throughout an inconsistent six-year career. Winston has completed 61.4% of his career throws, averaging 274 yards per game with 121 touchdown passes but 88 interceptions.
Brees has one of the quickest releases in the league and benefited from excellent pass protection in front of him. Possibly the NFL's best offensive line must continue to provide that kind of standout protection for their passing game to have any success with the new signal-caller.
New Orleans quarterbacks have been sacked just 12 times this season. Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead are the NFL's best tandem of offensive tackles and routinely silence the league's best edge rushers. Guards Andrus Peat, Nick Easton, Cesar Ruiz, and center Erik McCoy have fortified some early-season struggles and now supplies a formidable inside pocket.
Both quarterbacks will have a wide assortment of weapons. All-Pro WR Michael Thomas is one of the league's most unstoppable weapons and has seven receptions in the last two games since returning from injury. Wideout Emmanuel Sanders missed two games with a positive COVID test, but has fully grasped the playbook after a slow start and has 31 receptions for 367 yards and 3 scores.
Second-year Deonte Harris and undrafted rookie Marquez Callaway have emerged as consistent playmakers to give the receiving corps depth, with a combined 34 catches for 320 yards. Third-year receiver Tre'Quan Smith, who has 26 receptions for 305 yards and 3 touchdowns, is questionable for this game after suffering a concussion last week.
Running back Alvin Kamara leads the team, and is among the league leaders, with 67 catches for 648 yards and 4 touchdowns. Kamara is a matchup nightmare for defenses because he's a threat from all over the formation. Another matchup advantage for the Saints is tight and Jared Cook, who has 21 catches for 279 yards, 4 scores, and leads the team with 13.3 yards per reception.
The Falcons rank 31st in pass defense by allowing 310 yards per game. They've allowed seven 300-Yd passers this season and have given up a league-high 22 touchdown passes. Atlanta's defense has intercepted just seven passes and allows opposing quarterbacks to complete 67.8% of their attempts.
The Falcons have a young trio of physical cornerbacks in A.J. Terrell, Isaiah Oliver, and Kendall Sheffield, along with veterans Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Darqueze Dennard, who have promising ability but have struggled to contain opposing wideouts.
Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen are heavy hitters at safety, but have a limited range. Atlanta has given up at least 90 receiving yards to twelve different players this season. Deion Jones is one of the NFL's most athletic linebackers and has the skill to lock on to either running backs or tight ends in coverage. He is also tied for the team lead with 2.5 sacks, an area the Falcons have struggled in 2020.
The Falcons have just 14 sacks this season, among the least in the NFL. Their top edge rusher, Dante Fowler, is on the Reserve-Covid list, leaving only Charles Harris (2 sacks) and Allen Bailey (1 sack) with takedowns from the defensive end spot.
Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett is one of the league's best at his position and will be a challenge for the New Orleans interior. Jarrett is tied with Jones for the team lead with 2.5 sacks and leads the defense with 19 QB pressures.
THE RUNNING GAME
With Brees out, I expect the Saints to lean more on their running game, especially if Taysom Hill takes the bulk of snaps at quarterback. New Orleans averages 121 yards per game on the ground, ranking 13th in the league. Alvin Kamara leads the way with 486 rushing yards and 7 touchdowns, averaging 4.7 yards per carry.
Veteran Latavius Murray is an outstanding complement to Kamara, adding 378 yards and 2 scores. The versatile Hill is most effective as a runner and has 186 rushing yards and a score while averaging 5.5/carry.
The New Orleans running attack is most effective when their interior offensive controls the point of attack. Peat, Easton, Ruiz, and especially Erik McCoy are all athletic enough to get outside on edge runs and screen passes. They also open up crucial cutback lanes for Kamara and Murray, often springing them for big plays.
Atlanta's defense ranks 18th against the run, giving up an average of 100 yards per game on the ground. The Falcons have held four opponents under 100 yards rushing this year so far. Grady Jarrett gets excellent penetration into opposing backfields.
Deion Jones is an outstanding run defender and is athletic enough to get to the edge before a runner turns the corner. They often use Keanu Neal as an extra linebacker near the line of scrimmage, while safety/linebacker Foyesade Oluokun has also been a versatile defender against both the run and pass.
Kamara, the NFL leader in yards from scrimmage, has been held in check in six career games against the Falcons, averaging 94 yards in those contests and not scoring once. He must get on track against Jones for the Saints to be effective. Wide receiver Michael Thomas has been extremely protective against Atlanta. In eight career meetings against them, he’s averaged 8 catches and 97 yards per contest, with four games of over 100 yards receiving.
Through the week, several reports have stated the Saints are going with Taysom Hill as their starter this Sunday. Whichever quarterback plays against the Falcons, and beyond while Brees is sidelined, New Orleans must establish control of the line of scrimmage.
Teddy Bridgewater went 5-0 as a starter when Brees was injured last year. The Saints had offensive success because Bridgewater played efficiently, something that Hill and Winston must replicate. New Orleans could also maintain a balanced offensive attack and imposed their will with a dominant offensive line performance.
The Saints were considered Super Bowl favorites coming into the year because of the strength of the supporting cast on both sides of the ball around their Hall of Fame quarterback. With Brees now out for an indefinite period, it's now up to that supporting cast to show they are still championship contenders. It starts this Sunday against their most bitter rival.