The New Orleans Saints (5-6) will likely put their playoff hopes on the line Thursday night when they make the short trip east to take on the Atlanta Falcons (10-1).
Another loss would likely end any chance the Saints currently have at securing a wild-card spot in the NFC. The Falcons, on the other hand, are closing in on the NFC South crown. An Atlanta win Thursday night and a Tampa Bay loss in Denver secures the division for the Falcons.
In the following slides, we will break down the five matchups that will decide whether the Saints stay alive in the NFC or if the Falcons get one step closer to winning the NFC South.
The Saints' much-maligned run defense held Turner to 15 yards on 13 carries in the first matchup, which more or less turned the Falcons into a one-dimensional offense.
While Matt Ryan threw for over 400 yards, having him drop back 54 times is preferable to any scenario in which Turner provides some balance on the ground. New Orleans needs to again erase Turner from the Falcons' offensive game plan early Thursday night.
Forced to throw 54 times in the first meeting, Ryan targeted his big tight end on a season-high 15 occasions. While the opposing defender varied greatly (nine different Saints defenders guarded Gonzalez), Harper was the main victim.
According to Pro Football Focus, Harper allowed two catches on four targets, including one of Gonzalez's two touchdowns. The slowing safety won't be the only one tasked with stopping Gonzalez, but he needs to do better Thursday night, especially in the red zone.
Gonzalez wasn't the only tight end doing damage during the first meeting. Graham, a very similar player to Gonzalez, caught seven passes for 144 yards and two scores, mostly against Nicholas and Moore.
According to PFF, Graham caught three passes for 45 yards and a score against Nicholas, and three for 90 and a touchdown against Moore. Drew Brees' combined passer rating when targeting the two defenders was just below 150.0.
No defense can reasonably expect to shut down a weapon like Graham, but both Nicholas and Moore need to be head-and-shoulders better against the big tight end Thursday night. The continued efficiency of Brees and Graham three weeks ago would be hard to overcome in the second meeting.
While facing Ryan in the first meeting, the Saints' pass rush came alive for one of the only times this season.
According to PFF, the Saints tallied 22 total quarterback disruptions (sacks, hits, hurries), including 19 from the defensive line. Will Smith (four hurries), Cameron Jordan (hit, two hurries), Martez Wilson (sack, hurry) and Sedrick Ellis (three hurries) led the way.
Overall, the Saints brought blitzes on 19 of Ryan's 54 dropbacks, but that wasn't the formula for stopping him. Ryan's passer rating was 121.3 against blitzes, and just 89.8 when facing a four-man rush.
New Orleans needs to continue getting pressure on Ryan with just the standard four-man rush. Blitzing Ryan isn't the way to beat this offense, even if the pressure isn't coming. The effectiveness of the defensive line early will determine how many times the Saints have to bring extra defenders against Ryan.
The Saints continued to get healthy on the ground during the first meeting, rushing for 148 yards and a score against a Falcons run defense ranked 22nd in the NFL (123.2 yards/game). Atlanta has since rebounded, holding Buccaneers rookie running back Doug Martin to 50 yards on 21 carries in Week 12.
New Orleans will need to run the football Thursday night in Atlanta, especially after getting beat up on the ground against the 49ers on Sunday (21 carries, 59 yards). The result for Drew Brees was a blitzkrieg from 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio against the pass.
If the Saints can't run Thursday, Mike Nolan will be able to devote his energy to coming after Brees. Balance prevents Nolan from being aggressive.