Each week, Chad Pennington breaks down a dynamic NFL playmaker or scheme, devises a game plan and discusses a strategy for success. This week, Pennington looks into how Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense will attack an aggressive Saints defense in New Orleans.
The New Orleans Saints have the top-ranked offense in the league, led by quarterback Drew Brees, who is on pace to break Dan Marino’s single-season record for passing yardage. Brees is also completing more than 70 percent of his passes, tops in the league, and has thrown 37 touchdown passes, ranked second to Aaron Rodgers.
And, oh, by the way, the Saints are also No. 2 in the NFL in scoring with an average of 32.6 points per game.
As we look toward the Saints’ NFC South showdown with Atlanta on Monday night in New Orleans, your first thought might be that the Falcons need to score 40 points just to keep up with the high-powered Saints.
Don’t even go there. And neither should Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan. It’s a trap.
When facing an opponent with a high-powered attack, a quarterback’s natural instinct is to feel as if his offense must match the other score-for-score. His competitive nature tells him to prepare to outduel the other quarterback. It’s easy to become enamored with your opponent’s success while failing to realize what you can actually control. You fall into the trap of forcing things, and the game blows up in your face.
Instead, playing efficient and situational football is critical.
The Falcons must avoid three-and-out series and, when they don’t score, at least change field position. If there is an opportunity to score, Ryan and his offense must capitalize. I’m talking touchdowns, not field goals. If the Falcons have four chances inside the red zone, they must come away with at least three touchdowns and a field goal.
That didn’t happen in Week 10, when New Orleans squeezed out a 26-23 overtime win in which the host Falcons outplayed the Saints in every facet of the game — except the scoreboard. They had more total yards (481-363), outrushed them by almost 100 yards (138-41) and controlled the ball 6 1/2 minutes longer than the Saints. The problem? Field goals instead of touchdowns.
For example, the Falcons opened the game with a 16-play drive that devoured almost nine minutes. The third series of the game took up almost 5 1/2 minutes. However, Atlanta settled for six points instead of 14.
It reminded me of a similar situation when I played for the Dolphins in 2009. On a Monday night in Miami against the high-powered attack of Peyton Manning and the Colts, we controlled the clock for more than 45 of the 60 minutes and went 15-of-21 on third-down conversions! The outcome? Colts 27, Dolphins 23. We had settled for too many field goals.
One might not think Matt Ryan, entering his fourth season, is a very flashy quarterback, but check this out: Since he’s been a starter, Ryan has compiled a 42-18 record for a .700 winning percentage. Only Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers have won at a higher rate.
Speaking of Ryan, Saints coach Sean Payton said: “He’s got athleticism to make plays moving to his right or left. He’s really sparked them and provided the leadership to put that program in a place it hasn’t been.’’
But here’s what has impressed me more: Ryan stepped into a volatile situation the moment he was drafted. Because of Michael Vick’s off-field issues, the city of Atlanta was torn and looking for answers. Matt handled the pressure with class and poise. He fit right in and didn’t play outside himself. That’s hard for a young quarterback. Ryan took the reins as a rookie and helped his team to an 11-5 record and a playoff berth.
Here are the keys for Monday night:
• Division games are all about the individual battles. Division teams know each other well, so there are hardly any surprises during a divisional game. Winning your one-on-one matchup is always the key to success. The biggest matchup in my mind is Ryan against Saints middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma. Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey gives Ryan freedom at the line of scrimmage. The Falcons quarterback handles numerous checks and calls for his offense. Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams gives Vilma the same type of freedom on defense. He’s every bit the QB that Ryan is — just on the defensive side of the ball. You will see Vilma counter a quarterback’s audible with his own.
Watch for the cat and mouse game between Ryan and Vilma. In the first contest, Ryan made numerous checks at the line of scrimmage based on the Saints’ defensive alignment. Although Vilma did not play in the first game, the Saints defense still made its own adjustments to combat Ryan’s audible system. The winner of this individual battle will give his team a winning edge.
• For Ryan and the Falcons’ offense, crowd noise will be a huge obstacle. Communication is critical. In the first contest, the Saints checked to a Cover-2 defense multiple times when Matt Ryan was changing the play. The Saints assumed Ryan was changing the run play to a pass play to attack the blitz or coverage that Gregg Williams had initially called. The Cover-2 scheme was then a better answer for the pass-play audible.
For Monday night’s matchup, I would install a package of pass plays that would be accompanied by a run play as the audible. This would do two things. First, the pass play would have answers for the coverage and/or blitz initially called by the Saints. No communication would be needed concerning an audible. Second, when the Saints decided to play Cover 2, Ryan could audible to a run play. A run play against a Cover-2 defense favors the offense. On a side note, an offense usually checks from run to run or run to pass. Checking from a pass play to a run play presents a different challenge, one a defense rarely sees. Again, a cat-and-mouse game.
• I would focus on the red zone, especially first- and second-down production. Lack of production on first and second down is what Gregg Williams wants. Then, on third down, he can put eight men in coverage and force a quarterback to throw short, underneath routes. When an offense kicks a field goal, Williams chalks that up as a win because he didn’t allow a touchdown. With a quarterback like Drew Brees on your team, there’s no doubt that forcing field goals on defense is a win!
Because of Williams’ philosophy in the red zone, the Falcons will face multiple one-on-one opportunities on first and second down. The Saints will employ free-safety coverages that will give Matt Ryan opportunities to exploit one-on-one matchups. Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Co. must win these battles and score touchdowns in the red zone. I like pass-route combinations on early downs that include a deep route accompanied with shallow cross routes staying on the move. If the deeper route isn’t open, Matt Ryan can then work the shallow crosses underneath, which give the Falcons the ability to score after the catch is made.
Completions in the red zone will be key for Ryan and the Falcons. Positive yards on first and second down will create short-yardage situations on third down. Then, the Big Man, Michael Turner, can bulldoze his way for first downs and touchdowns. If the Falcons get into long-yardage situations, Turner and the running game are nullified.
• Finally, the “X” factor is Julio Jones. He has provided the perfect passing-game complement to Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White. With Jones in the game, a defense must cover all areas of the field. At any time, this guy can make a big play down the field. If Atlanta can get one big play from Jones in each half, control the clock and score touchdowns in the red zone, there could be a dirty bird sighting in the Big Easy!
I can’t wait to watch!
Chad Pennington will be calling the Tampa Bay at Carolina game at 1 p.m. ET Saturday for FOX.