The New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons wrap up this year’s NFL Thanksgiving triple header with a prime time showdown in Atlanta. These bitter NFC South rivals met less than three weeks ago in New Orleans, with the Falcons pulling off a surprising 26-9 upset win. It was one of only a few stumbling blocks this season for the Saints, who come into the game with a 9-2 record and could clinch the division title with a victory.
Atlanta has had few bright spots outside of their shocker in New Orleans. The Falcons come into this game with a 3-8 record and one of the worst defenses in the NFL. The scripts were flipped when these two teams played on November 10th, however, and the Saints come into this game with a few key injuries as they look to even the score in the rematch. Here are some key matchups to watch in this intense NFC South feud.
SAINTS OFFENSIVE LINE vs. FALCONS DEFENSIVE LINE
The Falcons sacked New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees six times when these teams met earlier this month. Atlanta has just 18 total sacks in 11 games this season. Eleven of those takedowns came against New Orleans in Week 10 and in a win over Carolina the following week. Brees has only been sacked 3 times in the five other games he played, and the Saints’ offensive line has allowed just 14 sacks outside of that Atlanta debacle. New Orleans will have two reserves along the left side of their line for this game. Nick Easton has been playing in place of the injured Andrus Peat (broken arm) at left guard, and Patrick Omameh will start for Terron Armstead (ankle) at left tackle.
Atlanta defensive Grady Jarrett, who had 2.5 sacks against the Saints in Week Ten and leads his team with 5.5 for the year, along with Adrian Clayborn (4 sacks), will be a stiff challenge inside for Easton, right guard Larry Warford, and center Erik McCoy. The Falcons also have a pair of athletic edge rushers in Vic Beasley (4 sacks, 1.5 against New Orleans) and Takkarist McKinley. Omameh and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk must control this duo along the outside to keep Brees upright. The New Orleans offensive line must also set a physical tone early on to establish their running attack against a Falcons run defense that gives up 110 per game. New Orleans abandoned the run early in their last meeting against Atlanta, finishing with just 11 rushing attempts for 52 yards.
ALVIN KAMARA/LATAVIUS MURRAY vs. FALCONS LINEBACKERS
The Falcons held Kamara and Murray to only 93 yards combined on 19 touches in the first meeting between these teams, including just 36 on the ground. Atlanta has a pair of lightning fast linebackers in Deion Jones and De'vondre Campbell that present a challenge, but the pair of dynamic New Orleans backs must be productive for this offense to be effective. Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas and tight end Jared Cook both look to have a significant advantage against the Falcons secondary and their 27th ranked pass defense. Murray’s power and Kamara’s versatility, if used, would give the Saints offense the balance they have enjoyed most of the season.
SAINTS CORNERBACKS vs. FALCONS RECEIVERS
One of the biggest storylines within this key battle is an injured superstar on each side questionable to play. Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore has missed the last two games with a hamstring injury suffered early in his team’s game against the Falcons. Lattimore is one of the best cover corners in the league and has been a vital part of the Saints much improved pass defense.
He has had some memorable duels against Atlanta star wideout Julio Jones in his short three year career, and will draw the Falcons’ Pro Bowler in most man coverage matchups if he plays. Jones himself has been slowed by a shoulder injury, but seems likely to play. Jones leads Atlanta with 64 receptions for 950 yards and has caught 4 touchdowns. The Falcons also have a talented game breaking receiver in second year Calvin Ridley, who has added 50 catches for 699 yards and a team-high 6 touchdowns.
New Orleans bookends the talented Lattimore at the cornerback spot with Eli Apple, who is also having an outstanding season. Apple has proven capable of taking on top wideouts, giving the Saints one of the top pairings of cornerbacks in the league. Apple, like Lattimore, can cover either Atlanta wideout 1-on-1, and both cornerbacks have gotten terrific safety support from Marcus Williams and Vonn Bell.
If Lattimore cannot go or is limited though, the New Orleans secondary may be at a serious disadvantage against the third ranked Atlanta passing attack. Nickelback P.J. Williams has been inconsistent throughout his career and struggled in last week’s victory against the Carolina Panthers. Rookie Chauncey Gardner-Johnson has been impressive in the slot, also where Williams is most effective, but both get targeted heavily and must stand up to the challenge in this one.
SAINTS DEFENSIVE LINE vs. FALCONS OFFENSIVE LINE
Like the team’s offensive line, the New Orleans defensive line had their worst outing of the year against the Falcons earlier this season. The Saints did not record a single sack of Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan from their front four, and the defense generated little pressure without blitzing. Ryan attempts more passes than anyone in the league and has been sacked 29 times in ten games this season. The ability of the New Orleans line to apply pressure without blitzes would also help a potentially shorthanded secondary.
The Saints have 31 sacks on the year and have pressured opposing passers heavily in most of their games. Defensive end Cameron Jordan has 9.5 of those sacks and seems headed toward another All-Pro campaign. Fellow end Marcus Davenport is second on the team with 4 takedowns, but has applied consistent pressure throughout the season. This defense also generates pressure from a defensive tackle rotation to disrupt a quarterback’s pass pocket.
New Orleans possesses the NFL’s 4th best run defense, but were kept off balance by misdirection and were lost at the point of attack by the Falcons in their last meeting. An Atlanta run game that ranks next-to-last in the league rushed for 143 yards against the Saints, maintaining control of the ball and pace of the game. The Saints typically get great penetration inside with tackles Malcom Brown, Sheldon Rankins, David Onyemata, and Shy Tuttle. That allows their linebackers, led by star Demario Davis, to snuff out opposing backs.
Both teams have tremendous talent at the skill positions on the offensive side of the ball. The difference between the two squads for most of the 2019 though has been along the line of scrimmage, where the Saints have dominated most of the year. They did not enjoy such an advantage during their November 10th loss at home to their most hated rival. The Saints’ easiest path to victory in this rematch will be to establish physical superiority early. With the division championship and playoff positioning on the line, expect New Orleans to do just that and top off their Thanksgiving with an NFC South title.
PREDICTION: SAINTS - 27, FALCONS - 17