The 5-2 New Orleans Saints defeated division rival Tampa Bay last week in a crucial NFC South battle. New Orleans has another divisional showdown this afternoon, when they host the 3-4 Atlanta Falcons. This is the first time this season that the Saints have had back-to-back home games.
Atlanta has a 53-51 edge in the all-time series, which is 26-26 when they play in New Orleans. Saints coach Sean Payton has a 20-8 record against the Falcons, including a 10-4 record at home, with his team winning six of the last seven matchups.
Payton has overseen a historically productive offense during his 16-year tenure with the team. It’s an offense that’s had some uncharacteristic struggles this year because of the offseason retirement of QB Drew Brees, a season-ending injury to WR Michael Thomas, and several injuries along the offensive line.
The Saints rank just 29th in total offense with an average of 305.9 yards per game. They've relied on their tenth ranked rushing attack while a passing game led by QB Jameis Winston worked into rhythm.
Just as the New Orleans aerial game was rounding into shape, Winston went down with a season-ending knee injury last week. Veteran QB Trevor Siemian replaced Winston against Tampa Bay and performed well.
Siemian gets the start today against a Falcons defense that ranks 16th in total defense (358 yards/game) and 25th in points allowed (27.9). Atlanta is just 24th against the run, ranks 30th in third-down defense, and has forced only six turnovers.
We should expect the Saints attack to revolve around the running game with Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram, and Taysom Hill. New Orleans will still need to make plays through the air for consistent production. Will they be able to do it against their most intense rival?
SAINTS PASSING ATTACK VS. FALCONS PASS DEFENSE
New Orleans Passing Game
Even before Winston's injury, the Saints ranked 31st in passing production. Only two teams have fewer passing attempts than New Orleans, who average just 181 yards/game through the air.
Winston had thrown 14 touchdowns against only 3 interceptions this season. Sean Payton will expect that same kind of ball security from Siemian, who went 16 of 29 for 159 yards and a touchdown after entering in the second quarter last week.
The 29-year-old Siemian has completed 59% of his attempts with 31 touchdown passes and 24 interceptions over a six-year career. He was 13-11 as a starter from 2016 to 2017 with the Denver Broncos. Should Siemian falter, the Saints would turn to Taysom Hill or rookie fourth-round choice Ian Book.
Hill has missed the last two games with a concussion, but fills a versatile multi-position role when healthy. He started four games in place of an injured Brees in 2020. Two of those were against the Falcons, when Hill completed 75% of his throws for 465 yards and four total touchdowns.
The Saints receivers are going to have to make plays for Siemian and the passing game, something they struggled to do early in the year. Versatile RB Alvin Kamara leads the team with 28 receptions and 4 scores, but only has 256 receiving yards. Defenses have clamped down on Kamara as a receiver because of the ineffectiveness of the team’s wideouts and tight ends.
Wideouts Marquez Callaway and Deonte Harris got off to a slow start, but have made key plays more consistently over the last few games. Callaway has a team-high 284 yards on 19 receptions with three scores. Harris has 15 catches for 271 yards and two touchdowns.
Fourth-year veteran WR Tre'Quan Smith returned two weeks ago from injured reserve and had a big touchdown reception and three receptions last week. Wideout Kevin White also had a crucial downfield catch against the Buccaneers. White, Smith, or Kenny Stills will have to be a more consistent playmaker to add another dimension to the offense.
The Saints tight ends have been a non-factor as receivers. Second-year TE Adam Trautman has 11 catches for 104 yards. After proving ineffective as a downfield threat, Trautman has fared better as an extra blocker in max-protect schemes and as a check-down option.
Converted wideout Juwan Johnson got off to a great start, but has just seven receptions for 72 yards. Three of those have gone for touchdowns. Taysom Hill could also be a factor as a receiver from an H-back spot.
Saints RB Mark Ingram adds another underrated element to the passing game. He and Kamara make a lethal tandem of receivers on screen passes. The team also uses Harris and Trautman on modified screens to get the ball out of the quarterback's hands quickly.
Atlanta Pass Defense
The Falcons have the NFL's 12th ranked pass defense, giving up an average of 233 yards per contest. They’ve not allowed a 300-yard passer yet this year, but opposing quarterbacks have completed nearly 69% of their attempts against them.
Atlanta has generated little pressure on the quarterback. They've recorded just 10 sacks and 28 QB hits. Edge rusher Dante Fowler is on injured reserve, leaving only DE/DT Grady Jarrett as the only accomplishment pass rusher up front. Jarrett has one sack and leads the team with 8 pressures.
Third-year DT Jacob Tuioti-Mariner is tied for the team lead with two sacks. Veteran edge rusher Steven Means and second-year DT Marlon Davidson are beginning to emerge as solid contributors as pass rushers.
The Falcons will blitz athletic linebackers Deion Jones and Foyesade Oloukun to create disruption. They’ve combined for three sacks and 8 QB hits, but are also among the few tandems of linebackers that have the athleticism to stay with Kamara in coverage.
Atlanta has just three interceptions this year, among the fewest in the league. They've allowed only one 100-yard receiver, but opposing quarterbacks have spread the ball around successfully against their loose coverage.
Fabian Moreau and A.J. Terrell are a pair of physical corners, but each are a bit athletically limited. Falcons safeties Duron Harmon and Erik Harris are active and fundamentally strong, but neither have great range. Backups Jaylinn Hawkins, who leads the team with 2 interceptions, and rookie Richie Grant provide solid depth.
What to Watch
The Saints had some uncharacteristic issues with pass protection early in the year. The return of C Erik McCoy and LT Terron Armstead from injuries have solidified the protection in recent weeks. Starting LG Andrus Peat is out for the year, but James Hurst and Calvin Throckmorton have proven to be capable replacements.
Giving their quarterback time to throw is one of the biggest keys to this game. The Falcons play a lot of zones and off-coverage, so Siemian can have an efficient outing if he has the time to go through his progressions.
New Orleans will likely rely on their running game. The wideouts must continue their weekly improvement and take advantage of opportunities to keep Atlanta from stacking the line of scrimmage with extra defenders.
If the Saints can give Siemian a clean pocket, Atlanta will be forced to blitz Oloukun and Jones to create pressure. This would open up space for Kamara and Ingram on quick passes out of the backfield, putting their talented backs in open field.
Most of the games between Atlanta and New Orleans over the last two decades have been known for offensive fireworks. The Saints now rely on their dominant defense to overwhelm opponents, with a workmanlike and mistake-free effort from the offense.
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