Saints vs. Falcons: 10 Keys to the Game for Atlanta
You know the background story by now:
The Saints have won three straight at the Georgia Dome.
Overall, the Saints have won 11 of the past 13 meetings against the Falcons, including having the honor of being the Falcons' lone defeat this season.
Enough is enough. If you can't get fired up about Thursday Night's Falcons-Saints matchup, then you don't bleed red and black.
The good news for the Falcons is that if you take away the pre-Mike Smith era losses (2006 and 2007), and last year's 45-16 Monday Night Football debacle, the remaining wins in the Saints' recent streak of “dominance” over the Falcons were all by single digits. The Falcons don't need to re-invent the wheel to beat the Saints, but they do need to tweak their approach.
Last Sunday, we had the pleasure of watching the 49ers beat the Saints again, in a game that the Saints had to have just like they did in last January's NFC Divisional Playoff Game.
What does that have to do with the Falcons? Sometimes the enemy of your enemy can be your friend.
At 5-6, the Saints are clinging to their playoff lives, and they will bring everything they've got to the Georgia Dome for a national television game that promises to give the Falcons a great preview of things to come in January.
Let's take a look at 10 keys to victory for the Falcons, including a couple of points that the Falcons can take from San Francisco's approach to beating the Saints in order to cripple Who Dat Nation's faint playoff hopes Thursday night.
Play with an Attitude
Although they jumped out to an early 10-0 lead, the Falcons didn't have the swagger of an 8-0 team early on in the first meeting between these teams in New Orleans. They looked more like a team that had shifted into cruise control.
The Falcons can't play that way tonight. They need to come out and hit the Saints in the mouth early to set the tone.
The Saints like to talk tough, but we all saw how much the 49ers' physicality took the Saints out of their comfort zone in last year's playoff game. Saints running back Pierre Thomas reflected on that game, saying:
"That was my first time ever getting hit like that," Thomas said. "It put me out of the game, so what can you say?"
The Falcons need to show the Saints that the Georgia Dome isn't their home away from home, and treat the Saints to the same kind of nasty hospitality between the whistles that the Saints reportedly got when they arrived at the Atlanta airport.
Win in the Red Zone on Both Sides of the Ball
There's a big difference between getting three points after a red-zone trip and getting seven points after a red-zone trip. With Matt Ryan and Drew Brees under center, neither one of these defenses can realistically expect to pitch a shutout.
If the first meeting between these teams was any indication, tonight's game could very well come down to which team is able to get touchdowns in the red zone instead of field goals.
Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez and the rest of the Falcons offensive skill players are going to have to step up and win one-on-one battles in the red zone to help Matt Ryan out.
Be Physical with Jimmy Graham and the Rest of the Saints Receivers
The Falcons have had as much trouble with Jimmy Graham as any other team that the Saints have faced, and Graham really did a number on Atlanta in the Saints' 31-27 win 18 days ago. Falcons LB Sean Weatherspoon, who missed the Week 10 game, has said that the Falcons will have a better plan for Graham.
Whatever Falcons' defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has up his sleeve, it would behoove the Falcons to get physical with these Saints receivers. The best way to slow down the Saints' passing attack is to disrupt Brees' timing with his favorite targets.
The Falcons should make sure that Graham gets a little “love tap” when he releases off of the line of scrimmage on passing downs, and William Moore needs to let Lance Moore know that there is a price to pay for running those seam routes out of the slot receiver position.
Third Down: Stay on the Field on Offense, Get off the Field on Defense
The Falcons and the Saints have both done a great job of converting third downs this season. Saints coach Joe Vitt said earlier this week that he thinks that the ability to convert on third down has saved the Falcons in a lot of their wins this season.
You can bet that both teams put an emphasis on their third down packages this week, especially if you consider the fact that the teams know each other well, so there isn't much that either one of them can disguise formation wise.
That means that the Falcons need their playmakers to do what they do best on third down, meaning a decisive Matt Ryan on offense, and a relentless John Abraham on defense.
Stop the Saints' Run Game Early
The Falcons finally found their run defense Sunday against Tampa Bay, limiting stud rookie running back Doug Martin to only 50 yards on 21 carries. That's a significant improvement from the 148 yards that Atlanta surrendered to the Saints' running back trio of Chris Ivory, Pierre Thomas, and Mark Ingram in Week 10.
There's no question that this Saints offense is dangerous when Drew Brees has the passing game clicking, but the offense is nothing short of lethal when the ground game is effective.
The Atlanta defense needs to match Chris Ivory's physicality and bottle up this Saints running game early to avoid being vulnerable to play action later in the game.
Find Darren Sproles in the Passing Game before Drew Brees Does
Darren Sproles missed the first meeting between these teams, but he will play tonight. Expect Drew Brees to target him quite a bit, particularly on third down.
With Sean Weatherspoon expected to help out with Jimmy Graham, the Saints will look to isolate Sproles on Stephen Nicholas in passing situations. The Falcons need to locate Sproles pre-snap and be ready to take away Brees' main safety valve.
Make the Saints Account for Jacquizz Rodgers in the Passing Game
Here's where the Falcons can give the Saints a dose of their own medicine. Jacquizz Rodgers has become more and more involved in the Falcons' offense, and he has proven that good things happen when he gets the ball in space.
The Falcons need to continue to find ways to take advantage of Rodgers' quickness and agility in the open field against the likes of Saints linebackers Curtis Lofton and Jonathan Vilma.
Surprise the Saints on Short-Yardage
This wouldn't be a Falcons-Saints game without a crucial short-yardage conversion at some point in the game. The Falcons need to finally erase the memory of their shortcomings in this area against the Saints.
Earlier this season, Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter made a great play call when he called for a fake screen towards the sideline, followed by a shovel pass up the middle in a short-yardage situation against the Eagles that the Falcons executed beautifully for a Jason Snelling touchdown.
The Falcons will need that same kind of creativity to surprise the Saints' defense, should another key short-yardage situation arise.
Win the One-on-One Battles up Front in the Ground Game
We all remember Todd McClure's comments about how the Falcons' struggles in the run game were not all on the offensive line.
While McClure may be correct in some cases, the Falcons' offensive line surely isn't blameless. Overall, the offensive line has played fairly well because the team is 10-1.
However, the Falcons have got to start winning some of these “man on man” battles at the line of scrimmage. If the Falcons can't push the Saints defensive line back, how can they expect to handle physical teams like the Giants, Bears and 49ers, in the playoffs?
Hopefully, the fact that Todd McClure spoke up and defended his fellow linemen lit a fire under this unit because they need to knock some heads Thursday night.
Force Drew Brees to Make Mistakes
Whether it's being physical with his receivers, getting in Brees' face with pressure, tipping passes at the line of scrimmage, or a combination of all three, the Falcons have got to force Drew Brees into making a mistake or two.
The Saints' offense isn't the same when they fall behind and have to play catch up because they start pressing. The quickest way to get the Saints down early is to force a couple of turnovers the way the Falcons' defense did to Peyton Manning earlier this season.