Welcome back to Breaking Down the Schedule. This week Atlanta will square off against it's arch-rival, the New Orleans Saints. The Saints have always been a tough out for the Falcons, but this year they'll be without both Jon Vilma and Sean Payton, which will have an impact on the team from a leadership stand point. To replace Vilma on the field the Saints signed former Falcons MLB Curtis Lofton.
The new public enemy #1
When looking at the coaches head to head we have a slight problem. Sean Payton has been suspended for the year and Joe Vitt has never faced off head to head with Mike Smith. When looking at the coordinators, one thing that sticks out is that Mike Nolan hasn't faced the Saints since he was the head coach of the 49ers. There's another match-up we can throw out the window. When Dirk Koetter and the Jags last played the Saints in 2011 the Saints won 23 to 10 and Dirk Koetter's offense was pretty much stifled. Gabbert nearly reached 200 yards, but MJD was held under 100. Once again it's pretty hard to tell how it will go as Atlanta has much more talent on it's offense then Jacksonville ever did while Koetter was there.
Let's start out by looking at the Saints offense. Drew Brees is still under center, and that is still going to be a problem. However, the Saints lost All-Pro guard Carl Nicks to Tampa and replaced him by signing Ben Grubbs. Grubbs is good, but he isn't quite as good as Nicks. The Saints tackles are still sub-par at best. Somehow Jermon Bushrod made the probowl last year despite being mediocre and Zach Strief is about as average as it gets at the RT spot. For years Brees has made his living off stepping up into a clean pocket to avoid the edge rush. Without Nicks this could change, and it showed a bit in their preseason game with the Patriots. Grubbs got pushed back a bit on the passing plays so Drew couldn't step up into the pocket. The result was Chandler Jones getting a sack after beating Bushrod. I'd expect Mike Nolan to bring as much pressure as possible to bring Brees down. The Falcons CB corps should be able to keep the Saints WR corp in check. The big problem will be finding a way to stop Jimmy Graham. The Falcons could try to double him with a LB and William Moore, but that could leave another issue which would be Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas in the screen game. Last year the Falcons managed to shut down the screen game, but Jimmy Graham ran wild on them. Atlanta must find a way to limit all of the Saints weapons and the best way to do that would be to break Brees in the pocket. If they can do that they should be able to put the offense in a position to win.
When looking at the Saints defense they've really improved their run defense between the tackles but they are still have issues with stop outside runs. Atlanta should take advantage of this by running JacQuizz Rodgers outside, and getting screen passes to him and Julio Jones. Not only will this open up the running lanes for Michael Turner, but it will also stifle an already lacking Saints pass rush. When looking at the Saints LBs they are all great run stufers, but David Hawthorne and Curtis Lofton can't cover Quizz or Harry Douglas, and with the zone scheme that the Saints will be running you should expect to see a lot of drag and crossing routes over the middle to pick on those LBs. The Saints defensive backfield is really hit or miss. Jabari Greer is a good zone corner, but if you get him isolated in man he becomes one of the worst CBs in the league. Patrick Robinson improved as the season went on last year, but he isn't going to stop Julio. The big thing to watch here will be Roman Harper. Harper is down right awful in coverage. It may seem like he'll get off easy in this game because Tony Gonzalez isn't the athlete he once was, but you have to remember Tony G is still one of the best route runners in football and can sell a fake like no one else.
Overall I think the loss of Sean Payton will be a bit to much for the Saints to over come. They have a very tough schedule before they play us. They'll be playing Denver on Sunday night and then the Eagles on MNF before they host us the following Sunday. Add in that they have an early bye and the Saints could be suffering from some fatigue. With all of that being said, I believe Atlanta comes out of this one as the victors.
Previously on "Breaking Down the Schedule":