New Orleans Saints vs. Atlanta Falcons: Complete Week 1 Preview for Atlanta
The Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints kick off the season on Sunday with a game in the Georgia Dome. Atlanta leads the all-time series versus the Saints, 46-43, but New Orleans has had a dominant edge since head coach Sean Payton took over, winning 13 of the last 16 games.
Atlanta needs to turn it around against New Orleans, and fast. This week will be one of the Falcons' biggest tests of the season, and should they turn in a great game, it would show that they are one step closer to being a top team again.
Atlanta Falcons Preseason Recap
Atlanta had the best preseason it's had since the 2010 season. It may seem trivial to be happy about the preseason, but winning in the preseason is how everyone on the roster builds the confidence needed to be ready for the regular season. Atlanta needed to have a solid record, and 2-2 definitely got the job done.
By building confidence over the past two weeks in the starting units, Atlanta could end up having a shockingly good defense this year with an offense that no one can match when it's clicking on all cylinders. It's crazy to say, but this could be the best Falcons team since the 1998 group that went to Super Bowl XXXIII.
News and Notes
Nickel Packages Will Have Multiple Variations
Per ESPN.com's Vaughn McClure, head coach Mike Smith said the Falcons haven't settled their nickel group and that it will likely be unsettled throughout the season:
Again, I think there are a number of positions on our team that it doesn't really matter what happens in Game 1. We don't have 11 starters. When we start talking about matchups, it could change at a number of positions, not just at the nickel position. I don't want to even get into who is this and who is that. We're going to line up on Sunday, we're going to have 46 guys that are going to be active, and we'll put the best 46 and the healthiest 46 on the field.
Atlanta has a ton of defensive talent on its roster, but it'd be surprising to see the team go with someone other than Robert McClain in the nickel alignments. Josh Wilson would be a candidate to take some snaps there, as he played a ton of snaps in the preseason in the role.
However, McClain can play both inside and outside, and should the Falcons run more matchup defense than zone coverages, McClain will be in so that they can put the best 11 on the field for the scheme being ran.
The Falcons Could Have a Legitimate Shot at the Super Bowl
Bill Barnwell of Grantland talks about how the Falcons have no expectations. However, he makes a great point that the Falcons of 2014 won't be the same team that they were in 2013. The biggest thing Barnwell noted was that Atlanta's situation is extremely unique historically.
"I guess, at the end of the day, I just think it's shortsighted to write off a team that was so good for so long after one bad year," Barnwell wrote. "I can't really prove that, because there just aren't many historical comparables for the Falcons."
Everyone is writing off the Falcons for the 2014 season as if they're the same exact team that was put out there in 2013. They definitely are not the same team. Nineteen of the 53 players on the opening day roster this year are newcomers.
Not just that, there will be at least six different starters this year as well. It's a huge overhaul for the Falcons, and they have played better this preseason because of the added depth. Don't be shocked when Atlanta looks closer to the 2010 or 2012 teams this year than the 2013 squad.
Is Corey Peters Atlanta's Secret Weapon on the Defensive Line?
After not playing in the preseason, defensive tackle Corey Peters told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Michael Cunningham that he was ready to play in the upcoming game against the Saints:
I feel great. No real lingering effects. I am a lot better than when I first found out. With the way the surgeries are coming, they've made a lot of progress. It's not what it used to be. I feel good.
Peters was one of the Falcons' best interior rushers in 2013. With Paul Soliai next to him eating double-teams, Peters could be a dark horse for a much improved season. He didn't play in the preseason due to an injury he suffered in Week 15 of last season.
Should Peters show that he's healthy, he could be one of the guys who comes out of nowhere to lead the team as a pass-rusher inside on the defensive line. Adding push inside will only help eat double-teams for blitzes and open up outside rushers, and Peters could explode in the right role.
|Corey Peters (Achilles)||DT||Probable|
|Dezmen Southward (Concussion)||S||Probable|
*All injury statuses from the Atlanta Falcons' official website.
The injury report was extremely light this week with both Corey Peters and Dezmen Southward practicing all week. The Falcons will be able to take advantage of a fully healthy roster for the first time since their 2012 opener. This could only help them, as health was the big issue in 2013.
X-Factors and Matchups to Watch
Julio Jones vs. Keenan Lewis
Julio Jones is healthy again and is one of the top five receivers in the NFL at full speed. Keenan Lewis was one of the top 10 cornerbacks in the league in 2013 and really fits into what Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan loves to have his cornerbacks do scheme-wise.
Jones will be going against one of the best cornerbacks he'll see all season and should be tested early and often. This is still a matchup that Jones can—and should—win, as he's a much better athlete than Lewis is and has a two-inch and 12-pound size advantage.
Desmond Trufant vs. Marques Colston
Desmond Trufant was a top-five cornerback in the NFL as a rookie but will need to show that he can improve on an excellent rookie season with a physical test in Marques Colston. Colston is a possession receiver with sneaky deep speed.
Trufant can contain him, but he'll have to lock down the Saints' top receiver so that Robert Alford can get more help over the top on the other side. If Trufant can do his best Richard Sherman or Darrelle Revis impersonation, the Falcons can win this matchup.
Atlanta Falcons Offensive Line vs. Saints Pass Rush
Atlanta's offensive line features two new starters in Jon Asamoah at right guard and Jake Matthews at left tackle. It also features Joe Hawley as the leader at center this year and—if he can continue his preseason performance—a much-improved Lamar Holmes at right tackle.
The Saints pass rush was one of the best in the NFL in 2013, registering 54 sacks, 54 quarterback hits and 167 quarterback hurries for a total of 275 quarterback disruptions on just over 600 passing downs. The ability to get to a quarterback almost every play is something Atlanta needs to plan for.
If the Saints force the Falcons to keep a receiving target in the backfield as an additional blocker, the Falcons could be in for a long day. The Falcons' best shot to slow down the rush is to run a ton of screens and hope that their new additions hold up better than last year's line did.
Falcons' X-Factor of the Week: Devin Hester
Atlanta brought in Devin Hester to help create big plays in the return game. He should be a big boost over the combination of Robert McClain, Harry Douglas and Jacquizz Rodgers as a returner. He has the ability to take it to the house any time he touches the ball.
It's his offensive abilities that could be underrated in this week's matchup. He has been used as a slot receiver all preseason and could be a surprise big-play threat in the Falcons offense. He took both a slant and a screen pass to the end zone during the preseason.
Atlanta and New Orleans are two very evenly matched teams that always play each other close. The Falcons offense should be able to score points in bunches this year as the offensive line gives Matt Ryan more time than he had in 2013. This will help them stay ahead of the Saints passing attack.
However, it's a revamped running game that should help keep the Falcons defense fresh so that it can attack every single down it's on the field. New Orleans isn't a team full of slouches, though. It will have to utilize a passing attack led by Jimmy Graham and Drew Brees in order to beat Atlanta.
The Falcons should be able to control the pace of the game at home and should eek out a win in the final minutes. I have the Falcons winning by four points at home to open their season on a good note that will hopefully continue throughout the entire year.
Prediction: Falcons 28, Saints 24
All stats used are from Pro Football Focus' Premium Stats (subscription required), ESPN.com, CFBStats or NFL.com. All combine and pro day info is courtesy of NFLDraftScout.com. All contract information is courtesy of Spotrac and Rotoworld.
Scott Carasik is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. He covers the Atlanta Falcons, college football, the NFL and the NFL draft. He also runs DraftFalcons.com.