This week’s Thursday night game sees the unbeaten Atlanta Falcons take on struggling divisional rivals New Orleans in the Superdome. The Falcons currently lead the NFC South after sweeping their NFC East slate and also beating the dismal Houston Texans. The defense looks much improved, and new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has created a potent running game to back up Matt Ryan. The Falcons look legit. Despite a thrilling overtime win against Dallas, the Saints haven’t turned the corner from last year’s disappointing 7-9 season. The Jimmy Graham-Max Unger trade hasn’t worked out as they hoped, and a supposedly more run-based offense has been ineffective as the Saints languish at 1-4.
Three Keys to the Game
- Atlanta’s running game.
When asked to carry the load on struggling Falcons teams of recent years, Matt Ryan has struggled. But with a much stronger supporting ground game this season, Ryan has been able to relax under less pressure. Second-year back Devonta Freeman is a dual-threat workhorse with eight touchdowns already and 645 total yards from scrimmage. Only Matt Forte has more rushing yards so far this season. Expect Freeman to run amok against New Orleans.
- Saints’ defense.
In the overtime win against the Cowboys, the Saints gave up 20 points and 335 yards. Then Rob Ryan’s unit made a struggling Eagles offense look like a powerhouse after allowing 39 points and 519 yards. The Saints will struggle to stop an Atlanta offense that can dominate on the ground with Freeman and torch the secondary through the air with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones.
- Is Julio Jones healthy?
Speaking of Jones, the Falcons expect to play him despite Jones still struggling with a hamstring injury. Against the Redskins, Jones had just five catches for 67 yards. But he was no less important, recovering an Atlanta fumble in the endzone for a touchdown. Jones could again be limited as the Falcons aim to monitor his pitch count, but expect him to still play a role.
Match-up to watch
Matt Ryan versus Drew Brees Since sharing the NFC South, it’s been Brees that has often had the upper hand, with better weapons and a better team. This season, the roles are reversed. Ryan is surrounded by a much stronger supporting cast while Brees continues to decline. Both teams have tried to emphasise the run more to help their star quarterbacks. The Falcons have succeeded. The Saints haven’t. Drew Brees is still carrying the load for New Orleans, yet trails Ryan in passing yards, attempts, and completions.
The Superdome was once one of the hardest stadiums to win in on the road. Since last year, that advantage seems to have disappeared for New Orleans. Unlike their prime years with Drew Brees and Sean Payton, the Saints will struggle to win when a much better team comes into their backyard. Expect Atlanta to move to 6-0.