The Atlanta Falcons are in for a surprise on Monday night in the Georgia Dome; especially if they expect to see the same New Orleans Saints that handed them the week three victory with Garrett Hartley missing a chip shot 29 yard field goal in overtime. The last meeting between the two NFC South rivals saw a markedly different New Orleans Saints, as a lot has transpired since then.
Three key players have emerged as integral parts of the Saints Super Bowl defending squad, rookie running back Chris Ivory, 2008 first round draft pick defensive back Malcolm Jenkins, and rookie tight end Jimmy Graham.
Reggie Bush went down in week two, prior to the last meeting, with a broken fibula and Pierre Thomas was injured during the last meeting with a mysterious, slow-healing ankle sprain. They were inactive for eight and nine games respectively. Chris Ivory, who began the season on the inactive list, has since become the Saints’ leading rusher and the primary short yardage back.
Chris Ivory rarely gets stopped for a loss, and not since the departure of Deuce McAllister have the Saints had so much confidence in their short yardage running game. Ivory has shown versatility as well, having a formidable combination of bruising power and breakaway speed. He’s been nominated twice for Rookie of the Week, earning it once, and has multiple 100+ yard games along with 5 touchdowns and a 5.3 per carry average.
Drew Brees is probably the biggest beneficiary of the Chris Ivory factor. Despite his 365 yard, 3 touchdown effort vs. the Falcons, Brees’ aerial attack has really come alive since then. The effective running game has opened up the play-action passing game that makes the Saints offense so lethal.
Among active quarterbacks, Drew Brees is tied with Tom Brady for 1st in touchdown passes with 31, third in overall passing yards with 4122, third in yards per game with 294.4, fifth in 40+ yard passing plays with 10, and leading the NFL with a 68.5% completion rate. Needless to say, the offensive juggernaut is back.
With play action back on the menu, Drew Brees has found yet another target to add to his embarrassingly rich arsenal of reliable receivers, rookie tight end Jimmy Graham. A matchup nightmare for defenses, the former University of Miami basketball standout has 25 receptions for 315 yards and three touchdowns.
His size alone, 6’ 7”, 260lbs, makes him difficult to cover, but his uncanny athleticism makes him nearly impossible to cover. For the a little lagniappe, Jimmy Graham runs a 4.53 in the 40 yard dash. He’s been a quick study under the tutelage of four time Pro Bowl tight end Jeremy Shockey.
Pro Bowl free safety Darren Sharper, who led the team in interceptions last season, began the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list. In his absence, 2008 first round draft pick, Malcolm Jenkins, has quickly mastered the position and become a major play maker.
The Malcolm Jenkins from week three was clearly learning to play a starting role in Gregg Williams’ complicated defensive scheme. Since then, Jenkins has proven his mettle by twice earning the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Week.
His first POW honors was a result of his aggressive play at Cowboy Stadium in week 12 where helped rip victory from the jaws of defeat by causing and recovering a fumble he ripped from Roy Williams’ grasp as he sprinted for the end zone. Drew Brees and the offense seized their one last opportunity to steal a victory with a quick strike touchdown drive. His second POW honors came two weeks later at the Bengals where he had two interceptions, including one he returned 96 yards for a touchdown. Both Sharper and Jenkins will be on the field Monday night.
Needless to say, The Saints have been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to exact revenge for the painful loss sustained at home in week three. The Falcons have quietly put together a very successful season, entering the game at 12-2. The Saints(10-4), however, aren’t intimidated by their record.
As the experienced, battle-tested Super Bowl defending Champion, the Saints know who they are, know what they’re capable of, and intend to show the world that the New Orleans Saints are still the NFC top dog.
For the Saints, the playoffs begin Monday night in Atlanta with a convincing victory over the NFC’s top ranked team. From there, the Saints go marching right on in to Super Bowl XLV.