Finally, the Saints’ most hated rival is saved for the final team in the opposition analysis for the NFC South: The Atlanta Falcons. Out of all of the teams in the NFC South,maybe even the NFC itself, Atlanta has itself set up for a trip to the Super Bowl, not just the playoffs. Their additions more than make up for their subtractions in free agency and the draft this year. This is not a team to take lightly. So, lets see what they’ve gained.
It seems that their most dangerous additions were on offense. Somehow, they coaxed Tony Gonzalez into playing one more year for Atlanta. Add to that Stanford TE Levine Toilolo (seriously, with Star Lotulelei and Levine Toilolo, spell check is going to hate the NFC South) and you have a potentially dangerous combination. Now, Toilolo is nowhere near the level of greatness Gonzalez is and he has some work to do honing his skills as both a blocker and a receiver if he hopes to share the same field as Gonzalez. But, he is a sleeper prospect and one that can emerge with a vengeance, considering he has the best TE this past decade as a mentor and a great supporting cast of wide receivers in Roddy White and Julio Jones. If nothing else, he has a chance to grow for a year and still contribute without having to be the main weapon at TE.
Atlanta helped its ground game by trading Michael Turner in for Steven Jackson. While he is still an older veteran (he’ll be 30 by the time he takes the field on opening day), he has a lot left to give this team and is a great upgrade in the running game. Jackson still has burst and plenty of punishment left to dish out in the ground game and is also able to add something in the passing game as well. Lucky for him, he won’t have to be the featured piece in the offense due to the efficient passing game the Falcons run. He won’t have nearly as many opponents keying in on him than when he was a Ram. Jacquizz Rodgers should be happy to have such a great backfield mate because he can be utilized more to his strengths in the passing game. Of course, there is still Jason Snelling who can be used more efficiently in a backup role and on short yardage situations.
The offensive line has been shuffled a bit with the release of Tyson Clabo and the retirement of Todd McClure but the Falcons are so sure with the talent they have on the roster to replace these veterans that they didn’t sign or draft any major offensive line competition. It seems they are set to go with Peter Konz or Joe Hawley at the center position, Garret Reynolds at right guard, and Mike Johnson or Lamar Holmes at the right tackle position. Nothing is set in stone for the center and the right tackle position at this point but the competition will be fierce and the starters will be more than capable replacements for McClure and Clabo.
On the defensive side of the ball, the biggest free agent addition is Osi Umenyiora who will replace longtime Atlanta defensive end John Abraham. There is much to doubt about Umenyiora but, in my opinion, there is a lot more to fear. He is 29 and hungry for a starting spot on the defense after being constantly shuffled in New York. On the other side of the line there is still Kroy Biermann but he will have to guard himself against Malliciah Goodman, the Falcon’s fourth round pick. Goodman has incredible measurables with long arms and huge hands, measuring 11 inches. Yowza. He is going to add depth behind Biermann, for now, with a chance to develop as he is rotated into the lineup. Their other end, Stansly Maponga, will be behind Umenyiora and is expected to hone his craft as a pass-rush specialist. Having Umenyiora as a mentor will be great motivation for Maponga.
If you look at the NFC South, the only team with serious question marks in the passing game is Carolina, where you still have to deal with Steve Smith for at least one more year. The Falcons, after having lost Brent Grimes in free agency and releasing Dunta Robinson, needed a starting caliber defensive back and one to play in the slot. Desmond Trufant gives this Falcons team a fast, physical presence at defensive back. Robert Alford, their next pick, is another 4.3 speed defensive back with great return skills. They still have Asante Samuel at the other DB spot and Thomas DeCoud and William Moore at the safety positions. The Falcons may have lost some pro bowl-quality talent in their defensive backfield but were aggressive attacking that loss in the draft.
Finally, we cannot ignore Brian Banks. His story is inspirational, having come from a wrongful prison sentence onto the practice field of an NFL team. While he has run the first team defensive at middle linebacker, Akeem Dent will likely retain that job unless Banks continue to impress as he has been. Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas will man the other two linebacker spots. I doubt Banks will strictly serve as a motivational piece for this team but it will certainly help make Atlanta hungrier for the Lombardi Trophy.
Worry or Stay Cautious?
Definitely worry. This team was dangerous last year and didn’t make it to the Super Bowl. Their no-huddle attack will likely be back and having Jackson will bring balance back to the offense. Matt Ryan will have Gonzalez for one more year and still has White, Jones, and Harry Douglas to throw to. On defense the Falcons replaced what they lost with youth and speed. Trufant, Alford, Goodman, and Moponga as rookies and Umenyiora as the veteran will serve to improve an already potent defense. The Saints will have to be smart when they face the Falcons. While their offensive line is by no means green, it is not the same line as it was last year. That may give the Saints a chance to try out their new defensive alinement on the right side of the line, where they have the least continuity and the biggest question marks. Sam Baker, while serviceable, has been inconsistent in his career and the Saints will have a chance to get to Matt Ryan through Baker. Drew Brees will likely have to be at the top of his game and face a defensive backfield similar to the one he will face against the Buccaneers, though likely a little faster. The ground game will be key in this game to help give Brees some cushion against the Atlanta secondary. That will be hard against the experienced linebacker core of the Falcons. We will see what the Saints have up their sleeves when the Falcons visit the Dome on September 8th.