The first of my in-depth looks at the regular season opponents of the Saints focuses on the hated arch-rivals – the Atlanta Falcons. In this piece, I intend to grade (out of 5) the positional units of the Falcons to give you a better idea of the opponent. It’s important to note that this isn’t a preview, as many things can change between now and the games against the Falcons. Also, the ratings I give are entirely subjective. However, I’ll try to justify them as best as I can.
Quarterback – Matt Ryan. (4/5)
Matty Ice, the Falcons signal-caller, is in the tier below the true elite quarterbacks. Despite an awful season for Atlanta last year, Ryan finished 4th in the NFL in both accuracy percentage (67.4%) as well as total yards (4,515). He’s one to be feared, although the Saints clearly hold the edge at the position.
Running Back – Steven Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers. (1/5)
In any season of the past decade, the presence of Steven Jackson on the opponent’s roster would be a sobering thought for defensive coordinators. After the past season, that is no longer the case. Both he and Rodgers ranked in the bottom 15 in yards per carry in the NFL, hinting at problems beyond their own individual talents. Once again, the Saints hold the edge at the position.
Wide Receivers – Julio Jones, Roddy White, Harry Douglas. (5/5)
Make no mistake: the above combination is one of the best in the NFL. Prior to his injury, Jones led the NFL in yards per game and bullied almost every defensive back he faced. Roddy White struggled with injuries too last year, but he’s not far removed from his best years as a pro. In their absence, Harry Douglas thrived and made a case for being one of the best 3rd receivers in the league. At this position, the Falcons hold the edge – while Colston is undoubtedly brilliant, Stills is still inexperienced whereas Cooks has yet to play a down of pro football.
Tight End – Levine Toilolo. (1/5)
Gonzales’s retirement leaves a Gonzo-sized hole at the position for the Falcons, which cannot be filled by Toilolo. He could emerge as a competent tight end in time, but there’s not enough evidence of that so far to give the position anything but a 1. The gap at the position between the Falcons and the Saints is similar to the gap between New Orleans and my residence in London, UK.
Offensive Line – Sam Baker, Justin Blalock, Joe Hawley, Jon Asamoah, Jake Matthews. (3/5)
While the 2013 unit was below average in run blocking (as I alluded to earlier), they were one of the worst in the NFL in pass protection. Only Joe Flacco and Ryan Tannehill were sacked more often than Matt Ryan last year. However, they’ve added a great piece in Jon Asamoah, allowing the terrible Peter Konz to be relegated to the sideline. While we haven’t seen Jake Matthews take NFL snaps yet, he HAS to be better than Lamar Holmes. They’ll be a middling unit this year, a step in the right direction for Atlanta. While the Saints don’t have an elite offensive line either, they have a slightly better one than the Falcons.
Defensive Line – Tyson Jackson, Paul Soliai, Jonathan Babineaux. (3/5)
This is another unit which was awful last year but has since improved through offseason acquisitions. Both Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai will be upgrades at their respective positions, and they’ll be expecting positive things from rookie Ra’Shede Hageman who will be rotating in and out of the lineup. Compared to the Saints’ defensive line though, the Falcons fall well short.
Linebackers – Kroy Beirmann, Paul Worrilow, Joplo Bartu, Osi Umenyiora. (2/5)
I debated whether to give them a 1 or a 2 (especially after the season-ending injury to Sean Weatherspoon), but both Worrilow and Bartu showed enough promise to assume they’ll take another step forward this year. The edge rush will need to improve for this unit to be average – only Chicago and Jacksonville notched up fewer sacks – and I don’t see that happening. Thanks to Galette, I give the Saints a slight edge at this position.
Defensive Backs – Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford, Robert McClain, William Moore, Dwight Lowery. (3/5)
While this unit definitely has the potential to be a 4, the lack of experience keeps it at a 3. Trufant was really impressive last year, and Alford did well too. When a Jaguar steps in as a starter on a team, it’s unlikely to be an upgrade; I do like Lowery though, so maybe this is an exception to the rule? Regardless, the Saints have one of the best – if not THE best – secondary in the NFL; we hold a massive edge at the position.
Special Teams – Matt Bryant, Matt Bosher, Devin Hester. (4/5)
Bryant’s consistent field goal conversion and Hester’s incredible legacy as a returner give this position an above-average grade. Those two are clearly better than their Saints counterparts. While Bosher isn’t quite to the Morstead standard of punting, Atlanta nonetheless holds an advantage at special teams.
The only positional units that the Falcons hold the edge over the Saints at are wide receiver and special teams. That speaks volumes over the superiority of the Saints roster over that of Atlanta. With an edge in coaching too, I’d expect nothing less than a win over the Falcons, both home and away.
Agree? Disagree? Let us know by commenting below. You can find me on Twitter at @neershah9 – I’m more than happy to talk Saints football.