Well, it’s finally here at last. Saints at Falcons, in the Georgia Dome in good ol’ “Hotlanta”, a.k.a. the “ATL”. Saints fans have been chomping at the bit for months now to arrive at this moment, in what is the long-awaited start of the 2014 Regular Season — a season in which many observers including some well-respected national analysts, are saying will see the Saints win their 2nd Super Bowl in franchise history. While it’s well-known about how much I whole-heartedly agree with that assessment, I prefer to take in the entirety of the season at one week at a time; since things like injuries or freakish plays can alter a particular game and impact a team’s fortune in one fell swoop. So, with that in mind, here is my look at Saints at Falcons: Week 1 Preview & Prediction.
Who: New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons Week 1
Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Georgia
When: Sunday, September 7th, 2014
Team Records: New Orleans (0-0), Atlanta (0-0)
TV / Radio: NFL on Fox (Fox Channel 8 in New Orleans); WWL 870 AM /105.3 FM in New Orleans
The Saints come into the game with lofty expectations, following a 2013 campaign that saw them finish 11-5 with a season-ending loss to the eventual-Super Bowl champion Seahawks at Seattle in the Divisional Round of the Playoffs. Conversely, the Falcons come into this game looking to rebound from a very disappointing and rather dismal 4-12 campaign that was rife with crucial season-ending injuries and bad luck in last second finishes of several of their losses. As such, both sides are looking towards this game with a sense of atonement in which each are looking to make a bold statement coming right out of the gate for 2014.
The Saints have won a whopping 13 of 16 against the Falcons since coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees arrived in 2006. However, players and coaches are always quick to point out how close these games always are. Seven of the last 11 games have been decided by four points or less — including nine of them by eight points or less. Last year, the Saints won 23-17 at home in Week 1, thanks to Kenny Vaccaro’s pass breakup in the end zone in the final minute. The Saints subsequently pulled out a nail-biting 17-13 win at the Georgia Dome in Week 12.
MATCHUP TO WATCH WHEN SAINTS HAVE THE BALL:
Drew Brees vs. Falcons 2nd Year CB’s Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford
The Falcons surrendered six touchdowns of 40-plus yards last season. For them, it’s an issue that they hope to be able to resolve immediately, particular with the big-play ability that QB Drew Brees, rookie WR Brandin Cooks, and the rest of the high-powered Saints attack will bring to the “ATL” in Week 1. Brees and Saints head coach Sean Payton will be literally licking their respective chops at the prospect of exploiting Atlanta’s weak secondary, which was depleted with the off-season defections of former starters CB Asante Samuel and free safety Thomas DeCoud. With only strong safety William Moore being their lone threat to provide any sort of deep pass coverage, the Falcons’ chance of success likely will be placed upon the young shoulders of 2nd year CB’s Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford.
Brees threw for 357 yards and two touchdowns while completing an efficient 26 of 35 passes against both of the young corners when they were then-rookies pressed into action during last year’s season opening game at the Superdome. Though both Trufant and Alford are talented, they will be hard-pressed to stop the Saints’ high-impact passing game – which is expected to formally unleash the talents of dynamic rookie WR Brandin Cooks upon the NFL. Though Trufant, who likely will be matched up one-on-one with Cooks, is talented enough to go “toe-to-toe” with any top WR in the game, he just isn’t ready in my opinion to face the ridiculous amount of speed that Cooks possesses.
If Brees can throw on both Trufant and Alford all day long, it will force the Falcons to offer up a lot of safety help over the top in the form of bracket coverage by Moore and (off-season free-agent veteran signee) free safety Dwight Lowery. Trufant and Alford are both outstanding young players and will provide the Falcons defense and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan with a solid foundation for years to come, but they’re not good enough in my estimation to slow down the Saints’ offensive weaponry. If the Saints are able to establish the run early to set up the ‘play-action pass’ option, watch out.
MATCHUP TO WATCH WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL:
Falcons Offensive Line vs. Saints Defensive Line / Pass Rush
As I mentioned in my article on the Falcons earlier this week, their offensive line has become suddenly patch-work at best; and now made even worse by the devastating loss for the season of LT Sam Baker to a torn patellar tendon in his right knee. Baker of course was the vaunted protector of QB Matt Ryan’s “blind side”; and the Falcons were forced to switch rookie right tackle (and their top pick in this year’s Draft) Jake Matthews over to Baker’s old left tackle spot. It’s a blow that many ‘Dirty Birds’ fans and observers feel that the Falcons can persevere through, but I personally just can’t see it. Though Matthews is an incredible talent, he won’t be able to stop the bull-rush by either Saints DE Cam Jordan or OLB Junior Galette.
Matthews will be on the side opposite of right tackle Lamar Holmes, who will be filling in at the spot Matthews left behind to take Baker’s spot. As if that’s not enough, the Falcons additionally lost their swing man offensive lineman (tackle and guard) Mike Johnson for the year with a foot injury (Did you follow all of that? Yeah, my point exactly). Last season, Holmes played 13 games at either right or left tackle and he was an absolute disaster — allowing Matt Ryan to be hurried, hit or sacked a combined 76 times which was the second-most in the league. Holmes also managed to contribute 12 penalties which made him tied for the second-most in the NFL last season (Pro Football Focus actually has him rated him 75th among 76 offensive tackles).
They’ll of course be facing a young starting Saints defensive line that quietly has emerged into one of the League’s very best. A few weeks ago, I got taken to task for comparing this group to the legendary “Fearsome Foursome” defensive line of the great late 1960′s / early 1970′s Los Angeles Rams teams, but it was only meant to symbolize just how good this unit can be in due time. The emergence of talented young DE’s Akhiem Hicks and Tyrunn Walker, to go along with the pass-rushing ability of Jordan and Galette, makes this a real troublesome match-up for the Falcons. Last night on the weekly radio program Who Dat Confessional that I co-host every week with Saints / NFL analyst Walter “Deuce” Windham every Monday, special guest Patrick (“Egghead”) Elliott of website Who Dat Warriors noted that he thought that “this is where the Saints have a distinct advantage on both sides of the ball”. I unequivocally agree with Mr. Elliott on that assessment, and if Matty Ice spends any recurring amount of time on his back during this game, the Saints will win it going away.
FINAL SCORE PREDICTION: Saints 34, Falcons 23
I believe head coach Sean Payton will look to set the tone for the entire season by letting it “all hang out” so to speak, in this game. Payton has a 5-2 record in Season Openers as the Saints head coach, and I fully expect that he’ll leave no stone unturned in adding to that total this Sunday in Atlanta. This is a team that by all accounts is clearly better than its opponent; and although while I realize it’s a rivalry game in which all factors can be tossed out of the proverbial window, I fully expect that window to SLAM SHUT on the Falcons ……