There’s only so well you can play against the odds. And on Sunday, the odds will be heavily stacked against the Saints.
It’s easy to say: it’s the Falcons. These games are always close. We can beat them. And to some extent, it’s true. The Saints and Falcons play each other very regularly. Each department is intimately familiar with the other’s personnel and coaching tendencies. And typically, that makes for a close game. Gameplans effectively neutralize the other team’s strengths, and there’s a certain leveling of the playing field that comes with repeated competition against opposing players.
Generally, even if one team has a significant talent advantage, these games come down to the wire. It’s what we’ve come to expect over the years, whether the Saints play up to the Falcons or vice versa.
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This week may be different. For evidence to that point, look no further than their last matchup. Yes, it only ended up a 2-score game. But anyone who watched could tell you: that game was not close. The Saints looked hapless on defense, though more to the credit of an outstanding offensive performance from the Falcons than any deficiency on the Saints’ part. It was a rough week. Only the Lions game felt similarly hopeless. And there’s every reason to believe this week will be worse.
First of all, the injury situation is worse. Especially in the secondary.
Yes, James Laurinaitis is off the roster, and that should help the Saints. But in his stead will be a hobbled Craig Robertson, whose shoulder injury seems quite severe. I expect if the Saints had a more viable backup behind Robertson, he’d have missed these last few weeks. He’s been playing with essentially one arm.
Max Unger and John Kuhn are also banged up, but they should be able to play.
Kenny Vaccaro is, of course, out with a suspension. He missed the previous Falcons game with an injury, so there’s no change there. But it would certainly help to have Vaccaro. The same is true for Terron Armstead and Delvin Breaux.
Perhaps most significantly, the Saints will be without UDFA Ken Crawley. It’s not that Crawley is an outstanding player. If I recall, he didn’t have a great game against the Falcons earlier in the year. But he played in 100% of the Saints defensive snaps against ATL. And with the slew on injuries at CB, the Saints simply have no option behind him. And against a three-receiver heavy team like the Falcons, that’s crippling. Dennis Allen will likely have De’Vante Harris cover Mohamed Sanu in the slot. If there’s one thing you can be sure of, it’s this: Matt Ryan will target Harris early, often, and likely with great success.
Not to mention B.W. Webb is still B.W. Webb. He’s fine, for sure. But against Matt Ryan, that’s not good enough.
Oh, and did I mention we’re playing in Atlanta?
There are a few positive signs.
The Saints will have Dannell Ellerbe and Sheldon Rankins back for this one. They both missed the previous Falcons game. I’d be surprised if either, however, have enough of an impact to offset the CB situation.
Rankins has put up some decent stats so far. For a rookie DT, that’s a great sign. But he’s been a bit of a hot and cold player. Hopefully he can get a little more consistent in 2017. I expect he can. But he’s no game-breaker yet.
And Ellerbe should help in run support against Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. But I have to imagine, based on his level of play in recent weeks, that Ellerbe is nursing some injuries. He hasn’t looked his explosive, rangey self.
If there was any one thing that had me hopeful about the game, it’s Jairus Byrd’s resurgance. I don’t expect another two-INT game from Byrd, but either way his tackling and activity have jumped off the tape in recent weeks. If he can keep that up, it will make a huge difference.
The question then becomes, can Vonn Bell pick up his game? Playing safety as a rookie is no easy task, so I’m not down on Bell’s future at all. But the fact of the matter is, at this point in his career, he’s a liability. He can make tackles and is intuitive in run support, but his lack of athleticism leaves little room for error in pass coverage. Against Julio Jones and Matt Ryan, that could be devastating.
The emergence of Vic Beasley is the only reason to worry about the offense.
But that’s a hell of a reason to worry. Against a speed rusher like Beasley, Streif and Peat will have to bring their ‘A’ games.
Beasley leads the league in sacks in 2017. Yeah, you read that right. He has more sacks than Von Miller. He also leads the league in forced fumbles.
That’s the sort of player the Saints would kill to have. The sort of player than elevates a defense from mediocre to dominant. If New Orleans can’t contain Beasley, it’s going to be a long day for the offense. And if the offense can’t get going, it’s going to be a long day for New Orleans. Cause you know the Falcons will put up points.