The Saints could clinch the NFC South title Sunday if they win and the Carolina Panthers (5-8-1) lose to the Cleveland Browns. However, if the Saints lose and the Panthers win, the Saints will be mathematically eliminated.
In other words, there’s a lot riding on the latest installment of the Saints’ oldest and most heated rivalry. Here’s What 2 Watch 4:
Win back the crowd: Far and away, the biggest stunner of New Orleans’ 2014 season has been the current four-game home losing streak. Before that, the Saints had won 20 straight home games with Sean Payton as coach, including the playoffs. The Superdome had earned a reputation as one of the last places opponents wanted to set foot inside.
Instead, some of the Saints’ recent performances have been downright hideous (namely their 41-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers two weeks ago). And the home fans have turned downright hostile.
Check out this picture by The Times-Picayune. Everything about it is as unfamiliar as it is unsettling.
That’s the No. 1 thing that has to change Sunday – and potentially in a home playoff game. The Saints need to turn their home-field advantage back into an actual advantage instead of sucking the life out of the place with early miscues.
That means early turnovers by quarterback Drew Brees and others, as we’ve seen in recent home losses, are unforgivable. And the defense can’t get lit up by big plays early.
The Falcons need to be the ones feeling overwhelmed and uncomfortable instead of the Saints feeling pressure to perform inside their own building.
“I think you understand how to utilize the home crowd,” Brees said. “Early success, starting fast -- all those things keep the crowd involved, keep 'em loud. Big plays, momentum-changing plays. So you understand when you’re down and you’re not doing those things, you’re kinda taking that out of it, that benefit, that edge. So, man, we’ve gotta get that back.”
It’s kind of a chicken-vs.-the-egg thing to suggest whether the home fans need to pick up the team or vice versa. Regardless, it’s clear that neither has been happening lately.
Offensive tackle Zach Strief insisted that players don’t let the boos affect their performance – but he said they’re well aware that it’s happening. And that it’s deserved.
“I think we’re going to have a great environment. That’s what’s special about playing at home,” Payton said. “Absolutely, we’re going to need every person in there to be as loud as can be, and we’re going to need to play well. Our fan base is real smart. They understand that. I think it goes hand in hand.”
Payton said it obviously makes a difference whether or not Jones plays. But both Payton and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan insisted it didn’t alter their preparation. And they’re both well aware of how deep Atlanta’s receivers group is with Roddy White, Harry Douglas and Devin Hester.
The Saints were torched by Atlanta’s passing game in a 37-34 overtime loss in Week 1, with QB Matt Ryan throwing for a franchise-record 448 yards. The Saints did a decent job of preventing Jones from burning them over the top. Instead, they were ripped apart underneath by all four receivers and a couple running backs – thanks in part to a lot of missed tackles.
Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis (whom I would love to see in a one-on-one matchup with a healthy Jones) said the Saints were surprised by how the Falcons used Hester. Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro said he and fellow safety Jairus Byrd played too deep and that the Saints need to use more of an attacking approach.
Rob Ryan bluntly said, “I don’t think we played very well on defense, I don’t think we coached very well on defense, and the simple fact is they beat us and they did what they wanted to. … They obviously executed a hell of a lot better than we did.”
Exploiting Falcons’ pass D: Brees needs to torment the Falcons’ pass defense in a similar fashion. Not only do the Falcons rank dead last in the NFL in passing yards allowed (292.5 per game), but they also rank dead last in sacks (16).
Payton and the Saints' players said Atlanta’s run defense has improved in recent weeks. That’s all the more reason why the Saints’ season will come down to Brees being able to exploit the Falcons' biggest weakness. Brees needs to be the guy who’s on pace for nearly 5,000 yards and 35 TDs, with a league-best 70.0 completion percentage – and not the guy who’s stumbled too many times with 12 interceptions and two lost fumbles.
@MikeTriplett does the bonus junior galette may get effect next years salary cap?— Thomas (@ThomasTekjr001) December 19, 2014
@MikeTriplett: No, Junior Galette's bonus won’t start kicking in until 2016 if he earns it. But I’m glad you asked because I’ve been meaning to write about this as an intriguing side-note over the next two weeks.
Galette has nine sacks this season, and if he gets three more, he’ll earn $6.5 million in future roster bonuses and escalators which are also tied to him being on the roster and/or playing a certain amount of snaps. He’d get a $2.5 million roster bonus in 2016, a $1.5 million roster bonus in 2017, a $1.3 million escalator in 2018 and a $1.2 million escalator in 2019.
It’s an interesting clause because it gives Galette an incentive to go all-out for sacks over the past two games. I don’t envision that being a big problem, since that’s Galette’s primary role anyway. But still, it points out the inherent flaw in putting individual-stat incentives into a player’s contract.
As for Galette’s upcoming cap costs, it’s also worth pointing out that his 2015 cap figure will be greatly reduced in the spring. Right now he’s scheduled to count $15.45 million against the Saints’ 2015 cap because of a guaranteed $12.5 million roster bonus. But that will almost certainly be converted into a signing bonus and spread out over the final five years of his deal, which will drop his 2015 cap hit to $5.45 million.
@MikeTriplett with Hicks and Jordan both having down yrs and being FAs after 2015 what is likelihood either gets extended this offseason?— Ralph Malbrough (@SaintsForecast) December 19, 2014
@MikeTriplett: I’m guessing the theory here is that the Saints might be able to get Cameron Jordan and Akiem Nicks at discounted rates because they’re having down seasons. But I don’t see it automatically working out that way. Both players might figure they could play their way into bigger contracts next year.
I do think the Saints would like to keep both guys long-term, so it’s possible. But these things are pretty hard to predict. Just look at this year, when Galette signed a new long-term deal with two years left on his old one, while Jimmy Graham's new deal came down to the last possible minute under the franchise tag. It all depends on how much the Saints offer.
@MikeTriplett oh what was your answer to whether we'll lose Ingram or not a few weeks back?— Saints Nation (@1SaintNation) December 19, 2014
@MikeTriplett: I’ve answered this question at least once in a mailbag this year -- but my outlook is changing a little bit. In one respect, I wouldn’t expect the Saints to invest too much in any one running back since they don’t usually use one guy as a featured back and they have good depth with Khiry Robinson, Pierre Thomas, Travaris Cadet and whatever undrafted rookie they’re sure to unearth next year.
However, with the Saints going through some growing pains this season as they transition to their next generation of leaders and core players, Mark Ingram is the kind of guy they might want to invest in. He’s been so reliable, as they’ve leaned on him more heavily than any back since Deuce McAllister. They might value him more than they’ve valued backs in the past.
Then again, Ingram might also want to go someplace where he thinks he’ll have an even better shot to be featured more regularly as an every-down back. So there are a lot of unknowns -- including how the market for him will develop. It will probably cost around $4 million per year to sign Ingram, give or take a million.
@MikeTriplett MNF was the first time I've seen the saints use the 3-4 so prominently this year. Also, Cover 1. Finally found right pieces?— Deuce Windham (@RevDeuceWindham) December 18, 2014
@MikeTriplett: The Saints did use their base 3-4 defense more than usual against the Chicago Bears. But they’ve been using the 3-4 more this season, in general, than they did last season. It was just more noticeable Monday night since Galette was limited to 27 snaps because of a knee injury -- leaving Parys Haralson and Ramon Humber as the outside linebackers. Since Galette is almost always rushing the passer, he often looks more like a defensive end even when he’s lined up as a 3-4 outside linebacker.
I’m curious to see if the Saints make that a permanent tweak in obvious run situations, since run defense isn’t Galette’s strength. But we won’t learn too much this Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons since Galette said he’s still not back to 100 percent and expects to be used similar to the way he was last week.
Also, the Saints will probably be in their nickel and dime packages for most of the game since Atlanta uses so many multiple-receiver formations.
But Vaccaro admits it took him a while to realize that this hybrid/nickel role is the best one for both him and the Saints’ defense.
The second-year pro said he wanted to move into a true strong safety role this season, thinking he might become "great" at one thing. Instead, he went through growing pains all season before switching back this past week.
"I thought that might help me make more plays, I guess. But not really though. Not in Rob’s scheme. The position I was in last year, that’s where you want to be. You want to be that guy that he designs the whole thing around."
Vaccaro was widely praised by analysts last season because he was so valuable in that versatile role -- drawing many comparisons to the way the Pittsburgh Steelers use Troy Polamalu. Vaccaro said that’s the model he’d like to follow.
"I was getting caught up trying to be a strong safety. When I watch Polamalu, that’s what I can do, and that’s how I can impact the game. And I think that suits me better, and Rob thinks that, too," Vaccaro said. "And there’s nothing wrong with that, and I think I took it kind of for granted what he believes in me."
Ryan certainly agrees. Known as one of the NFL’s more creative defensive coordinators, Ryan has always loved the idea of using Vaccaro as that versatile chess piece to both attack defenses and keep them guessing.
"I just think to utilize him, he’s got all these abilities, I think it’s better to be able to put him in different spots," Ryan said. "They have to be able to identify him as an offense. I think if he’s playing one spot, that strong safety, if you’re just playing a true strong safety, those guys make some tackles, but it’s not ... I think he’s a better player, he can affect the game more in different spots. So I think you’ll see him do that, and I think it’s better for our team."
The Saints have made some other tweaks to their defense, too.
Corey White has been moved from cornerback to safety -- admitting that it’s more of a steep adjustment for him both physically and mentally at this stage of the season, even though he did play safety in college.
The Saints moved cornerback Terrence Frederick into a starting role and Patrick Robinson into a dime role last week. They moved Jamarca Sanford into the starting strong safety role -- though Sanford’s hamstring injury might force another tweak this week.
And partly due to outside linebacker Junior Galette's knee injury, the Saints used Galette in a limited role as a pass-rush specialist last week while playing more of a base 3-4 run defense than they ever have, with Parys Haralson and Ramon Humber on the edges. Galette said he expects to play a similar role Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons.
"I think our guys have always been multiple," Ryan said of some of the tweaks. "And look, we need to get some juice going on defense. And I think what we’ve done has helped. I think we get guys in some familiar roles, some guys in the roles that they maybe are built for. But at the end of the day we have guys that play multiple positions, and that’s a good thing to do."
Although Galette never appeared on the injury report this week, he told reporters Friday that his knee still isn’t 100 percent and that he thinks it’s a “smart” approach to keep limiting his snaps. He played only 27 snaps on Monday night against the Chicago Bears in a pass-rushing role -- and still wound up with two sacks.
Three Saints players are listed as questionable for Sunday’s game: Left tackle Terron Armstead (neck), defensive end Akiem Hicks (ankle) and safety Jamarca Sanford (hamstring).
Of that group, Hicks seems to have the best chance of playing after he returned to practice on a limited basis Friday. Armstead and Sanford did not practice all week.
Armstead would be replaced in the starting lineup by Bryce Harris, who’s had some ups and downs in cameo appearances this season but played well in Armstead’s absence last week.
It’s unclear how the Saints will replace Sanford since he just replaced Kenny Vaccaro last week as the starting strong safety. Perhaps Vaccaro will return to that role in base packages and play his nickel/hybrid spot in nickel and dime packages. Other possibilities include Marcus Ball and Corey White.
There's no way to predict which New Orleans Saints team will show up from week to week – especially considering they've lost four straight home games and won three straight on the road. And I hate overreacting to what they did the week before, since they've shown no consistency. But I have to believe we'll see the same sense of urgency this Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons that we saw at Chicago last week, with so much on the line in this game. And it's that sense of urgency that has been the Saints' biggest issue in their losses this year. If they come to play, I think they have the higher ceiling of these two teams.
Drew Brees is the most accurate QB in the NFL this year (a 70.0 completion percentage that ranks sixth in NFL history). He should be able to control the game against the league's second-worst defense, according to ESPN Stats & Information's efficiency rating. The Falcons rank last in the NFL in passing yards allowed and sacks, so they've shown little indication they'll be able to rattle Brees.
The problem is that the Saints feature the worst defense in that ESPN Stats & Info efficiency category. And they've already been picked apart by Matt Ryan and the Falcons once this year (a franchise-record 448 passing yards in Week 1). The health of Atlanta receiver Julio Jones is the big X factor. But I'll give the Saints the slight edge, if they can just remember how to take advantage of the home field.
My prediction: Saints 27, Falcons 24.
New Orleans Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton, who teamed with Ryan in Atlanta for four years after they both entered the NFL in 2008, said, “I think he’s playing better than I’ve seen him play ever.”
Dating back to 2010, Ryan has thrown 15 touchdowns against the Saints with only three picks (though his career record against New Orleans is 4-8).
Here’s what the Saints had to say about Ryan this week:
LB Curtis Lofton: “The thing about Matt, I’m gonna put him in, he’s one of the elite quarterbacks in this league. You just can’t line up and expect to have success. You have to disguise your blitzes and disguise your coverages, and you’ve gotta get pressure on him and make him uncomfortable. Because if he’s sitting back there and has plenty of time, he’s definitely gonna dissect you. … He throws it quick. And his scrambling ability has really increased this year, I think moreso than he has in the past.”
S Kenny Vaccaro: “I’m watching tape of this cat, and these last two months, man, he’s been unbelievable. He’s been accurate. His look-off I think is one of the best in the league as far as going through his progression. We were just talking about that earlier, I think he’s playing some good ball.”
QB Drew Brees: “I think he’s got great command of the offense. I think he’s extremely intelligent. I think he’s tough. He can make all the throws. I don’t really see him getting rattled. I think he’s a really calm, composed guy who loves to compete.”
Coach Sean Payton: “He’s got good feet, great awareness, arm strength, he’s accurate. I think he’s a guy that doesn’t just sit and hold the ball in the pocket. I think he knows when the play’s over -- you’ll see him throw it away. And yet he can flush, and he has, to his right and to his left and make plays with his feet throwing the ball or keeping it. So he does a lot of the things you look for. That’s why you’re looking at the numbers he’s put up and the season he’s having, it’s been pretty good.”
Payton on Ryan’s tendency to get rid of the ball quickly: “He throws with real good rhythm and anticipation. They do a great job with their spacing in regards to their route trees. And I think that group in front, these last six or seven weeks, has really gelled and [is] playing a lot better. So obviously I think it’s important that the looks are different and you’re able to maybe eliminate some of that timing. But he’s got real good awareness as to what you’re doing coverage-wise, man or zone, where he wants to go with the football. And so that clock operates very efficiently with him.”
Vaccaro on whether Ryan’s quick throws are essentially ‘jump balls’ he thinks his receivers can win: “Not necessarily. I think he’s a good pre-snap reader. He knows where to go with the ball based on the coverage he’s getting. He has a quick release. And he just anticipates what the defense is doing. … I don’t think he forces throws, I think he just knows where to go with it.”
Their records aren't pretty. Their defenses have been downright disastrous at times. But the stakes remain as high as ever as the New Orleans Saints (6-8) and Atlanta Falcons (5-9) head toward Sunday's showdown with the NFC South title hanging in the balance.
Both teams still control their own playoff fates with two weeks remaining in the season. Win out, and they'll be hosting a playoff game. Lose Sunday, and they'll need a lot of help to get in.
Their first matchup in Week 1 was a high-scoring thriller, with the Falcons rallying to beat the Saints 37-34 in overtime in Atlanta. A repeat is certainly possible since they feature two of the NFL's top-five passing offenses and the league's two lowest-ranked defenses.
ESPN NFL Nation reporters Mike Triplett, who covers the Saints, and Vaughn McClure, who covers the Falcons, discuss Sunday's matchup:
Triplett: The Falcons have won only one of their past four games. But it looks like they've been putting up a good fight against good teams. Do you think they have a realistic shot at winning their last two games of the season, against the Saints and Panthers?
McClure: I think it all depends on one person: Julio Jones. If Jones is well enough to play through a hip injury that sidelined him last week, the Falcons have a legitimate chance. Personally, I anticipate Jones will be ready for the Saints, based on everything I'm hearing. The offense doesn't flow as smoothly without him in the lineup, of course. Quarterback Matt Ryan and Jones really started to develop a rhythm with the deep ball prior to Jones' injury. If Jones indeed plays Sunday, I will be curious to see if his speed and ability to get down the field is hampered at all by the injury. Not to mention the Falcons need him as a red-zone threat after missing out on two such critical red-zone opportunities against the Steelers. The Falcons can't go to the Superdome expecting to win this game with a slew of field goals.
I see Sean Payton shook up the secondary a bit Monday night against the Chicago Bears. How did the defense hold up after the change, and do you anticipate any other tweaks this week?
Triplett: Honestly, I still don't have any idea how the Saints' secondary will hold up against a functioning NFL passing offense, because the Bears and Jay Cutler were awful. But the Saints had to like what they saw from the overall energy and aggressiveness -- from both the two new starters (CB Terrence Frederick and S Jamarca Sanford) and the veterans who were demoted to lesser roles (S Kenny Vaccaro and CB Patrick Robinson). They snagged a season-high three interceptions and sacked Cutler seven times. However, everyone was disappointed how quickly they let the Bears score twice in garbage time toward the end. So it remains a work in progress.
As for any changes, I expect to see the same players, but the Saints may tweak their plan since the Falcons have the depth to spread the Saints' secondary thin -- as we saw in Week 1 when Matt Ryan threw for 448 yards. I'm curious to see how the Saints handle Jones if he's healthy. New Orleans has one outstanding cornerback in Keenan Lewis, who often shadows No. 1 receivers. But against deeper teams such as Atlanta and Pittsburgh, the Saints put Lewis on the No. 2 receiver and double-teamed Jones and Antonio Brown (a tactic that worked better against Pittsburgh than Atlanta).
I know a lot depends on Jones' health. But is Atlanta's passing game still as dangerous as it was in Week 1?
McClure: I look back at the numbers from last week and the Falcons were able to put up 407 total yards against the Pittsburgh Steelers even without Jones in the lineup. Ryan has enough weapons to spread the ball around. I mean, Harry Douglas stepped up with 10 catches for 131 yards last week while both Roddy White and Devin Hester had touchdown catches. I think the underrated aspect related to the passing game is how the offensive line has held up despite going through so many changes. That's a credit to offensive line coach Mike Tice, who lost five linemen to season-ending injuries. Ryan has been sacked only twice the past three games. And although the Falcons are a "passing" team, it only helps when they have some semblance of a running game. Such was the case in a season-opening win over the Saints, when Ryan threw for that career-high 448 yards as his running backs combined for 108 yards on the ground. The Falcons are 17-3 under coach Mike Smith when they have a 100-yard rusher.
I've grown accustomed to Drew Brees being synonymous with a high-powered offense and it looks like the Saints enter this game second in the league in total offense. But this hasn't been a typical Brees-like year. Could you tell me where things have gone wrong for him and how he's handled rumors about the team pondering his replacement?
Triplett: Brees' season has been funny because he's still on pace for nearly 5,000 yards, 35 touchdowns and a league-high completion percentage of 70.0 (sixth in NFL history). But you're right -- it has been a little shakier and less consistent than usual. The biggest problem is he has turned the ball over too many times in big situations (12 interceptions, two lost fumbles). I think he has pressed too much, feeling like he needs to do it all with the defense struggling. It has been an exact repeat of 2012 in that sense. The Saints' downfield passing game has also been spotty, with Brees settling for more check-down passes than usual.
All of that being said, Brees is still awfully sharp. He put on a clinic last week at Chicago, completing 18 of 20 passes in the first half. Three weeks ago, he threw five touchdown passes at Pittsburgh. He's still one of the NFL's elite -- and both he and the Saints know that. So while they may start looking for an eventual future replacement soon, there's no way that they're looking to move on in the short term.
These two teams are in a tight battle for the NFL's worst defense this year. Are the Falcons even worse off than they were in Week 1, and what are their biggest issues?
McClure: This question seems to come up every week. Yes, the Falcons surrender the most total yards in the league at 409.9 yards per game and the most passing yards at 292.5 yards per game. To put it simply, the lack of a consistent pass rush and the lack of legitimate playmakers on that side of the ball make the Falcons extremely vulnerable. There have been splashes of solid play, like the way the Falcons shut down Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell in the running game last week and the way they pressured Drew Stanton and the Cardinals a few weeks back. But consistency is non-existent.
Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has developed a reputation over the years for being creative with his schemes, but he doesn't have much to work with now. I think the Falcons made a mistake by spending their free-agent money on beefing up the defensive line with space-eaters Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson, and both players would admit they set high standards for themselves. Desmond Trufant will be a cornerstone for the franchise for years to come as a shutdown cornerback, but Trufant can't beat Brees and the Saints by himself -- unless he comes up with a pick or two.
I see quite a challenge for the Falcons in trying to slow down running back Mark Ingram. Is it correct to say Ingram is starting to live up to his potential?
Triplett: Absolutely. He's on pace for his first 1,000-yard season even after missing three games with a hand injury. And he has been running with authority and confidence all year. However, a lot of his success has to do with the Saints finally improving their run game overall, dating to last season (Ingram had 97 yards in a playoff win at Philadelphia). And a lot of it has to do with opportunity.
First of all, trading Darren Sproles freed up Ingram to play more of an every-down role, and he has thrived by running out of passing sets, etc., instead of just heavy run packages. Secondly, he finally got the opportunity to be a featured back with 20-plus carries per week when Khiry Robinson and Pierre Thomas got hurt midseason, and he delivered in a huge way with four 100-yard games in a six-week span.
The New Orleans Saints started their first offensive drive with great field position this past Monday night, thanks to a turnover. But on their second play, Toon lost a fumble at the Chicago Bears’ 4-yard line when he got popped by a helmet right on the ball.
True to form, however, Saints coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees went back to Toon quickly, completing a 10-yard pass to him later in the first quarter. He finished with four catches for 43 yards in New Orleans’ 31-15 victory.
“That’s huge,” Toon said of the Saints sticking with him. “Obviously [the fumble was] unfortunate, but that’s part of the game. And you’ve gotta have a next-play mentality -- watch the film, learn from it and not let it happen again.”
Brees said “no doubt, 100 percent” he has always put an emphasis on going back to guys soon after things such as fumbles or dropped passes to make sure they maintain their confidence – though he stressed that’s not something he worries about with Toon.
Payton agreed – though he didn’t exonerate Toon for his lack of ball security.
“I think he can be carrying it tighter than he was,” Payton said. “[But] I think Nick is someone that will work hard at correcting that and came back and gave us some good snaps the rest of the night.”
Toon has been the biggest beneficiary since Saints rookie Brandin Cooks went down with a season-ending thumb injury last month, as they play a similar position in the base offense.
After being inactive for most of the first 10 games, Toon has 13 catches for 147 yards and a touchdown in the past four games. He matched his career-high with four catches in each of the past two games.
So far, Toon has done a better job of taking advantage of his opportunity than he did last season, when he had two crucial drops in a loss to the New York Jets while getting a chance to play while starter Marques Colston was injured.
Toon, a fourth-round pick out of Wisconsin in 2012, spent his rookie season on injured reserve. He’s had strong performances every year in training camp, which has always earned him a spot on the 53-man roster. But he hasn’t been able to consistently crack the top-four rotation until now.
“We all want to be out there on the field contributing and being a part of what’s going on. It’s great to be out there helping out,” Toon said. “It definitely took a little bit of patience, but that’s just how things panned out. And I’m happy to be out there contributing and hope to keep improving every week and building off what I’ve done so far.”
How Toon performs this season could be critical for his future, especially with Colston’s future uncertain because of a high salary.
It’s still too early to predict the status of any of those three players for Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Falcons – especially since the Saints have stressed extra recovery time this week following a Monday night game. Friday’s practice participation should be telling.
Armstead has left each of the past two games early with a neck injury, so it’s possible the Saints will be more cautious this week. His replacement, Bryce Harris, has been spotty in cameos at left tackle this year. But Harris fared much better last week against the Chicago Bears than he did the week before.
Hicks would likely be replaced by a combination of backups Tyrunn Walker and Brandon Deaderick, if needed. It would be interesting to see how the Saints replaced Sanford, if needed, since he just replaced Kenny Vaccaro as the starting strong safety last week. The Saints like Vaccaro better in more of a nickel/hybrid role. So perhaps they would use Marcus Ball as their base strong safety.
The far more important injury report is Atlanta’s. Receiver Julio Jones missed practice again Thursday with a hip injury, while others were on the mend.
As usual, Payton has stayed apprised of the comments being made by players, but he also suggested that the media has been doing a lot of quote hunting. Payton made a crack about the questions asked by the New Orleans media during Atlanta receiver Roddy White’s conference call.
White was asked about Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis saying he wanted to give the Falcons their “funeral” and replied, “May we rest in peace.”
“I mean, I followed the sequence here earlier in the week, and I also followed the questions leading up to it,” Payton said. “This game has a lot of significance to it, but running back and forth to each locker room ... you know. I thought Roddy’s answer was dead on. But then the follow up, ‘Is that all? Is that all Roddy? Are you sure you’re not madder than that?’ It’s like, c’mon.
“It’s an important game for Atlanta and for us; the teams are playing for a lot. I think we’ve talked about the rivalry element before. These division games, Carolina last week, Tampa Bay coming up next week, are important games.”
Of course, those types of comments do always seem to creep up more during Saints-Falcons week than others -- whether they're media generated or not. Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who is on injured reserve, was the latest to take some shots on Twitter on Thursday.
Greer had some great insight earlier about how the leadership transition has affected New Orleans’ secondary and safety Kenny Vaccaro in particular. Here’s Greer’s take on the Saints’ recent personnel changes (replacing Vaccaro and Patrick Robinson in the starting lineup with Jamarca Sanford and Terrence Frederick) and how they’ll match up with the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday:
“At first I was concerned about the changes, given that it was Week 15. On the other hand, given the magnitude of the game, the opportunity for those young men that played was tremendous. So part of me was hesitant. But the undrafted free agent part of me was looking back to the opportunity I got with the Buffalo Bills. The flip side of those changes is that there are a lot of people the Saints have invested in, which the team really needs. Kenny Vaccaro, Corey White, Patrick Robinson. These are guys that have incredible athleticism, have proven they can play football, but for one reason or another have taken a limited role. We understand that the Saints are going to need these guys if they’re going to make a push to the playoffs.”
(on matching up with Atlanta’s deep receiving corps): “I think the best approach would be to put your best cornerback on Julio Jones and then have a safety just to lean on top of him. Not to necessarily double him or commit two to him, but we understand that Julio is a deep threat. And I believe Keenan Lewis plays the deep ball almost better than anybody else in the league. You very rarely see Keenan get beat by the deep ball. I like Patrick’s ability to play in the slot. He’s extremely athletic, we all know that. But I think that over the last six games, the way that he’s contested every throw has been incredible. In six games I’ve only seen one ball being openly caught by a receiver that Patrick Robinson has guarded. So I’d feel very comfortable about putting him or Corey White or Kenny Vaccaro on the slot receivers. And then having Terrence Frederick or the other corners play Roddy White with a safety being able to respond. Because Roddy, he doesn’t run many deep balls anymore, not nearly as much as he used to. And it’s really time to test the young man Fredrick. He had a good game last week, and it’s time to see if he’s the real deal.”
Click here for Greer's more detailed scouting reports on Jones and White from earlier this season.
Stay tuned for his take on the Saints’ recent secondary shakeup and how they’ll match up with the Atlanta Falcons. Here are Greer’s thoughts on the leadership transition the secondary has gone through this season and how it has affected safety Kenny Vaccaro in particular:
“There's a huge transition, because what the men that were removed from that locker room (this past offseason) took was a culture. We had a sense of culture that was instilled during that 2009 championship season that we took long after that season was over. We knew how to hit, we taught everybody else how to tackle, the guys knew how to finish a play, how to intimidate and how to collectively weather the storm on the defensive side of the ball. And when all those guys who have had that culture are now gone, it’s up to the new guys who weren’t a part of that to create a new culture. And I think it’s been a process for them this year. There was a loss of leadership, but I think the biggest loss was the culture of accountability that we had for one another, especially in that secondary.
“You have to know your guys. You have to know their tendencies. I know that as soon as Patrick Robinson motions across, I have to make sure I get his attention, because he’s going to be locked in on his receiver. He can cover better than anybody in the league, but I know that when he’s coming across that I have to lock in and over-communicate with him. With Corey, I know he’s going to communicate with me. So it’s little things like that that I think as a secondary, they had a lot of questions to answer. Who was going to be that guy to step up and lead their pregame? Who was going to be that guy to help them weather the storm and really take control of the secondary when everything gets down? Who’s going to be that guy to overly communicate when they’re on the field making adjustments? And I think a lot of that, I think they invested that (newly-signed veteran safety) Jairus Byrd was going to be that guy. But once he got injured, all that sense of responsibility and leadership just got heaped on Kenny Vaccaro in a matter of days.
“Every young player that comes into the league goes through a maturity process, and it really helps when you have an older veteran to help you through that transition -- particularly that plays your position. When I was coming into the league, I had Troy Vincent, I had Nate Clements. Kenny has been thrust into this new leadership role, and there has been no type of transition. It just happened abruptly. Let alone, having the position change that Kenny had from a nickel-hybrid type player to a strictly strong safety. But keep in mind, I don’t question his ability at all. But knowing the psychology of the game, I understand that need for that player in there that has weathered the storm.”
But now comes the real thing.
The Saints will face much stiffer competition Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons than they did in this past Monday night's 31-15 victory over the hapless Chicago Bears.
The Saints and their 31st-ranked defense have been trying to fix the problem ever since.
"They're probably the best receiving corps in the league. I'm not gonna say probably -- they are," said Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis, who said he's preparing as though Atlanta will be at full strength despite receivers Julio Jones, Roddy White and Harry Douglas all missing practice Wednesday.
"So we definitely gotta get it together," Lewis continued. "They definitely embarrassed us the first week. And when you've got pride, you know you just can't come out there and let that happen again."
Jones' hip injury is the ultimate X factor this week. He didn't play last week and remains questionable. But Lewis said he expects Jones to play because the Falcons' season is on the line in this showdown that could wind up determining the NFC South champion.
Jones ranks second in the NFL with 1,428 receiving yards this year.
In that first game, the Saints' approach to covering Jones worked OK. They primarily put their best corner, Lewis, on White while mostly double-teaming Jones with corner Patrick Robinson and free safety Jairus Byrd. Jones caught seven passes for 116 yards, but most of it was underneath stuff, and he didn't score a touchdown.
The Saints used a similar approach that worked great three weeks ago against dangerous Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown.
The problem in Week 1, however, was that New Orleans got carved up by Atlanta's depth -- including a huge game from fourth receiver Devin Hester, strong performances by White and Douglas and two big touchdown plays by backup running backs Antone Smith and Jacquizz Rodgers.
Lewis admitted that Hester's usage (five catches, 99 yards) came as a "shock."
"In Chicago they really didn't use him like that," Lewis said of Hester's former team. "But he came out and he definitely exploited us last time. I'm pretty sure probably none of the guys expected it. The whole week they were saying how they were gonna use him as a returner and not as a receiver. But he showed that he's elite in this league and we've gotta keep aware of him."
The Falcons feature a lot of three-receiver sets (sometimes four) that will stretch New Orleans' new-look secondary to the limit.
Young cornerback Terrence Frederick and veteran strong safety Jamarca Sanford were new additions to the starting lineup this past Monday. And undrafted rookie Pierre Warren made just his fourth start since being re-signed off of the Minnesota Vikings' practice squad. Meanwhile, safety Kenny Vaccaro was demoted back into the nickel role in which he had thrived as a rookie last year. Robinson was bumped to dime back, and former starter Corey White was inactive.
The switches worked for the most part, with the Saints intercepting a season-high three passes (two by Warren, one by Robinson) and taking a 21-0 lead before some late breakdowns made the game temporarily uncomfortable.
"I thought overall, like anything else, you watch it, and you play well, and yet you put the tape on and there are things you can look at," coach Sean Payton said. "I didn't like particularly how we finished. Our red zone defense needs work. But I thought there were some positives you take away from the game.
"This'll be an entirely different type of game and an entirely different type of team we're playing. So we'll be smart about our personnel packages and how we want to use them."
Payton wouldn't specify whether he plans to stick with the same lineup. But he said the plan won't be altered much by the Falcons' injury report -- especially because the Saints have so much respect for Atlanta's depth at receiver.
"Their depth at that position is pretty impressive," Payton said. "Obviously the way Julio's been playing, it's important to know where he's at on the field. But I'm sure they'll be capable if he's not able to, so we have to prepare like he's playing."
Ryan also has traditionally frustrated the Saints' pass rush by getting rid of the ball quickly. A repeat of New Orleans' seven-sack performance against the Bears seems extremely unlikely.
"They're an explosive team offensively -- and not just in the passing game," Payton said. "Their numbers in the last six weeks with regards to big plays … they're a team that starts fast, they've got great tempo, obviously a veteran quarterback that gets them in to some advantage looks. It's not just a challenge for the secondary, it's a challenge for the whole defense. It's a challenge for our guys up front and understanding the splits, understanding what we're trying to do within each snap."
Brees’ career completion percentage of 66.2 percent also ranks first in NFL history. His completion percentage this season is 70.0, which ranks sixth all-time. He also ranks first (71.2 in 2011) and second (70.6 in 2009) on that list.
Last but not least, Brees is on pace for 4,981 yards this season. He needs to average 321 yards in the last two games against Atlanta and Tampa Bay to reach 5,000 for the fourth straight season and the fifth time in his career. No other NFL quarterback has ever thrown for 5,000 yards more than once.