When the 8-2 New Orleans Saints beat the Atlanta Falcons 23-17 in the waning moments of this season's opening game, few would have predicted that the Falcons would later be dwelling in the cellar—of the entire league!
Considering that most pundits expected the Falcons to reach the Super Bowl, it's safe to say that a 2-8 start was not in the cards.
Or was it?
Most experts are no different than fans—they usually analyze from the outside in. When a team has a quarterback like Matt Ryan, a tight end like Tony Gonzalez and receivers like Julio Jones and Roddy White, it's hard not to have high expectations.
But what most pundits failed to take into account was the fact that the players at virtually every position along both the offensive and defensive lines were of much lesser ilk than their star teammates.
The Falcons' brass had one of the worst offseasons in recent memory. First, the team let one of the greatest defenders in the history of the franchise, defensive end John Abraham, walk in favor of an overrated replacement in former New York Giants star Osi Umenyiora.
Atlanta also released right tackle Tyson Clabo, who was by far and away the team's best player on the offensive line last season.
These cost-cutting moves were designed in an effort to lock up Ryan financially while bringing in veteran skill players like running back Steven Jackson, who has been an utter disappointment.
In addition, the Falcons committed a football sin by allowing Gonzalez to skip most of training camp in exchange for one more year of his services. Football is a team sport played by a band of brothers. When you elevate one man above the group, you lose the core essence of what football truly is.
Blood, sweat and tears.
The football gods undoubtedly frowned upon this approach by the Falcons.
That's not to say that nagging injuries to White, coupled with a season-ending injury to Jones in Week 5, should be glazed over, but that's the risk you take when you fail to develop depth outside of your superstars.
Atlanta clung to the idea of being 10 yards away—in reference to their loss in the NFC Championship Game to the San Francisco 49ers—all offseason. Yes, the organization won its first playoff game under the current regime (a 30-28 victory over the Seattle Seahawks), but the fact that it squandered a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter was damning in itself.
Atlanta simply lacks toughness in the trenches and relying purely on finesse doesn't have enduring value.
After this season, Ryan will no longer have Gonzalez to move the chains in critical situations—he will be retiring...I think—and the team may bring back the worst run game in all of football.
The Falcons are in more trouble than people suspect, as they have a myriad of holes to fill to get back in contention.
With that being said, they are a serious threat to beat the Saints on Thursday Night Football.
For New Orleans, this game is sandwiched in between contests against the San Francisco 49ers (23-20 victory by the Saints) and Seattle Seahawks—the two teams many predicted would battle for NFC supremacy.
Considering only the 10-1 Seahawks sit above the Saints as far as the NFC pecking order goes, it's only human nature to look forward to such a contest.
But when you have your heated rivals looking to spoil the party, trouble could loom.
The Falcons are like a wounded animal. Until they're no longer breathing, they're still dangerous.
A silver lining for the Falcons has to be the emergence of receiver Harry Douglas (52 receptions for 754 yards and 2 TDs). After playing fourth fiddle behind the aforementioned trio of Gonzalez, White and Jones, Douglas looks like he could be a true No. 2 receiver to a budding superstar in Jones.
This could work well, as the Falcons could trade the 32-year-old White while he's still an attractive piece. Considering the Falcons are in need of a major overhaul, this is something that should be looked at. Knowing the Falcons' front office, however, it won't even be considered.
Douglas has the ability to stretch the field from the slot or work the intermediate game from an outside position.
Speaking of White, injuries have sapped his production (18 catches for 185 yards) and rendered him pretty much average.
Saints corner Keenan Lewis usually shadows the opposing team's best outside threat. This may be a game where he's assigned to defending Gonzalez (54 catches for 568 yards and 4 TDs) on the inside.
The Falcons have very little chance of moving the ball if it's not through the air. Jackson isn't as explosive as he was in his previous season with the St. Louis Rams. Going through a thigh injury has hampered his explosiveness even more.
Fellow running back Jacquizz Rodgers (5'6", 196 lbs) is always thought of as a scatback, but in reality, he's more of a between-the-tackles runner that lacks speed.
The most explosive back is Antone Smith, who has collected splinters in his butt (on offense) since he signed with the Falcons in 2009. However, his 50-yard run in their last contest warrants him getting another look.
Part of the reason for the ground game's ineffectiveness is the lack of talent on the offensive line. There's not one player that's really even worth mentioning. This is kind of sad, considering this unit used to be the strength of the team.
When the Falcons had center Todd McClure (retired), guard Harvey Dahl (Rams) and the aforementioned Clabo (Miami Dolphins), they had one of the toughest units in the league. But the infatuation with wanting to be like the Saints and Green Bay Packers—high-powered passing outfits—caused the Falcons to lose their true identity.
Saints defensive tackle Akiem Hicks should have a party with the interior portion of the Falcons' offensive line.
Here, we see Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy working against guard Peter Konz (a center by trade). Konz is not very good. He often fails to bend his knees, so he usually plays without leverage.
This part of the line works best with doubles. If the Saints even threaten to bring manufactured pressure, it can create one-on-one matchups. On this play, Konz leaves the double to focus on the threatening linebacker.
Tampa Bay harassed Ryan for the majority of this contest. Imagine what the Saints can do. The Saints will be able to generate organic and manufactured pressure against an underwhelming Falcons offensive line.
On defense, the Falcons are equally as soft in the trenches. Tackle Jonathan Babineaux is a very good player who will be tough to handle inside, but once again, nobody else is really worth mentioning.
Umenyiora has 6.5 sacks, but four came against rookie quarterbacks Geno Smith (New York Jets) and Mike Glennon (Tampa).
For the Falcons to generate pressure, it will more than likely be through manufacturing it. Rookie linebackers Joplo Bartu (50 tackles, 3.5 sacks) and Paul Worrilow (71 tackles) both look like gems. Worrilow is a tackling machine and Bartu is a playmaker.
The return of linebacker Sean Weatherspoon from the physically unable to perform list gives the Falcons a trio to be reckoned with for the future.
The rookie corner duo of Robert Alford (17 tackles, 2 INTs, 6 PDs) and Desmond Trufant (47 tackles, 1 INT, 10 PDs and 1 FF) looks to be a great pairing as well. Both are aggressive, but will give up big plays.
Veteran corner Asante Samuel (28 tackles, 1 INT) is a liability. Though he's slow and overaggressive, he also remains the most instinctive zone defender in football.
The safety duo of William Moore and the much-maligned Thomas DeCoud has struggled to say the least. Both are liabilities in pass coverage—especially DeCoud.
Ironically, both made the Pro Bowl last season, but they would be better off as professional bowlers this season—again, especially DeCoud.
Normally, a balanced attack would be the way to go, but the Falcons don't stand a chance of stopping the Saints through the air. The Falcons are giving up 8.1 yards per pass, which is 29th in the league.
In addition, the Falcons are 30th against the run, giving up 4.6 yards per attempt.
Theoretically, the Saints can have their way with the Falcons in any fashion they choose. But in rivalry games, stats tend to go out the window. The Saints can't afford to be upset by their heated rival while looking forward to the biggest game of the season.
It's one game at a time, fellas.
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