Saints Falcons Football

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees goes over the top for the winning touchdown in overtime to beat the Atlanta Falcons 43-37 in an NFL football game, on Sunday, Sept 23, 2018, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP) ORG XMIT: GAATJ772

The New Orleans Saints take on their arch rival Atlanta Falcons in a highly-anticipated Thanksgiving matchup. Here is a preview of the game.

FOUR DOWNS

Same song: Don’t expect this one to look or play the same as the first meeting between these two teams (a 43-37 Saints win in overtime in late September in Atlanta). New Orleans has improved on defense. There shouldn’t be the same amount of coverage busts that led to Atlanta running free down the field the whole night.

Keep protecting: The Saints didn’t have many issues last week with Jermon Bushrod starting in place of Terron Armstead at left tackle. Assuming he has to play again this week, the Saints should continue to stand tall against a front that isn’t as accomplished as Philadelphia’s.

Stopping the duo:Atlanta is going to need a better plan. Michael Thomas dominated the Falcons in the first meeting, catching 10 passes for 129 yards. But it wasn’t just him. Alvin Kamara also caught 15 passes for 124. The Falcons can’t let that happen again.

Stay petty: The Falcons complained to the league last year after New Orleans made some jokes about them on the video board, and Atlanta failed to announce Drew Brees breaking the completion record earlier this year. Let’s see the fireworks.


FILM STUDY

With defense settling in, how Saints attack Falcons' receivers will be interesting

Sean Payton was given the opportunity to take a shot at Thursday football.

The Saints always seem to end up on the wrong side of it, either playing on the road or by having a late game before the Thursday matchup. Playing at 3:25 p.m. last week with this week’s game against Atlanta isn’t that bad, but it’s still not perfect.

“We don’t mind it,” Payton said.

The situation could be much worse. Thursday games are simply a reality of life now, and this particular set of circumstances is better than playing a late game and then having to go on the road somewhere else. Having Atlanta as the opponent also helps. There aren’t many secrets between these teams.

Odd things can happen in these games, but as long as everyone stays upright and avoids injury, the Saints should be in good position to come out and beat a lesser opponent in a game where heavy scheming has to take a backseat.

The good thing for the Saints is they have settled their secondary since the first meeting. Ken Crawley struggled in that game, and P.J. Williams had some ups and downs after coming in for an injured Patrick Robinson.

Eli Apple has since replaced Crawley as the starter and is playing well, and Williams, while still susceptible to giving up a play, has been an asset for the defense the last few weeks. He’ll need to prove it again against a team that took advantage of him in the first meeting.

It will be interesting to see how New Orleans approaches the Atlanta receivers. The defense started with Marshon Lattimore on Julio Jones in the first meeting but abandoned that plan when the other corners struggled to keep up with Calvin Ridley.

If Lattimore pairs up on Jones, it could give him his biggest test since getting back on track and flashing the shutdown abilities he displayed last year. But the plan might come down to what is most comfortable to execute on a short week.


WHO HAS THE EDGE?

When the Saints pass

Advantage: Saints

The Saints should have an advantage against the Falcons on a short week.

When the Saints run

Advantage: Saints

New Orleans’ running game is hitting its stride at the right time.

When the Falcons run

Advantage: Saints

The Saints keep performing well against the run this season. Maybe it’s time to believe.

When the Falcons pass

Advantage: Falcons

This should be a close fight. The Falcons provide a big test for the surging Saints.

Special teams

Advantage: Saints

Not seeing Thomas Morstead is the best special teams there is.


NUMBERS TO KNOW

374:Yards passing allowed by the Saints in the first meeting.

256: Average yards passing allowed by the Saints in the games since.

19: Sacks by Atlanta, which ranks 28th

9: Sacks allowed by New Orleans, which ranks first


EXPERT PREDICTIONS

Nick Underhill

Saints 33, Falcons 17

This isn’t the same Saints’ team that played the Falcons in a close game earlier this season. The defense has matured and improved considerably since that game, and should be in better position to slow a good Atlanta offense than it was back then.

Rod Walker

Saints 38, Falcons 21

There's nothing to suggest the Saints won't continue to do what they have done the past few weeks. The defense is clicking now, and the offense is on fire, so this one won't be as close as that overtime thriller in September.

Scott Rabalais

Saints 41, Falcons 20

It’s the Falcons, so part of me expects they’re going to wake up and realize they’re capable of giving their bitter rival fits. But the way the Saints are playing, it’s hard to envision anyone giving them a game right now. The short week road trip does Atlanta no favors, either.

Nathan Brown

Saints 41, Falcons 20

The Falcons come in on a short week the losers of two-straight. With the type of performances the Saints have put up in recent weeks, there’s no reason to think the momentum will stop now.


SAINTS MAILBAG

Q: Is the Saints’ offense as dynamic this season if Taysom Hill wasn’t here? – Mark George

A: It would not be as dynamic if he weren’t here.

Some of the plays made by others were created because Hill was on the field. But the thing with that package is that it only has to be efficient enough to justify using it. I think it is well beyond that benchmark, but he impacts every single play in every single game.

How?

There is only so much time during the week to prepare. Teams now have to spend some of it preparing for Hill and all the possibilities he presents. Every minute spent on that is a minute not spent on figuring out how to stop Drew Brees, Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara.

I know some people think it’s being “cute,” a word that has shown up in my inbox and mentions every single time Hill makes a mistake, but it is much more than that. There is considerable merit to the things the Saints are doing, and I think that this might actually be a trend we see sprout up in more and more places.

I’m just not sure teams are going to be able to find someone as dynamic as Hill. Some of the stuff the Saints are doing might be the result of a guy who is 1 of 1.

Q: How has Eli Apple changed the defense? Did he travel with his guy last week? – Dharma

A: I think Apple has changed the defense in that he’s (mostly) fundamentally sound and the risk of him making a mistake or committing a penalty isn’t quite as high as some of the other players in the secondary.

The Saints have looked more like themselves the last two weeks in how they’ve approached their opponents. The blitz numbers are up, and the team is using more aggressive coverages. Those are the hallmarks of Dennis Allen’s defense, but they went to the wayside a little bit as the team sorted things out.

It was good to see Marshon Lattimore be able to travel with Alshon Jeffrey and shut him down. Apple also matched up a little bit more and moved around the formation as he matched up opposite Lattimore.

His presence has been extremely valuable. This will, however, be a more significant test for the secondary. The Rams were more explosive, but that was before Apple was up to speed. We will see if the group can hold up against the Falcons.

Q: A lot of people are looking at the Eagles game like it was a breaking out of the WRs not named Michael Thomas, but the Eagles had a depleted secondary. Do you think the production was a result of the WRs finally catching on, a poor secondary or a bit of both? – Dylan Pellerin

A: I think it is a little bit of both things and more.

I’ll need to see a little bit more from Tre’Quan Smith before I buy all the way into the hype. He obviously has talent and potential, but he’s still a little bit raw and is growing into the system. But we’ve seen two of these games from him now, with Washington being the other.

I like Keith Kirkwood’s upside a lot. He’s come out quick and made some plays. I think he would have liked to catch the pass he dropped in the second half last week, but he’s doing really well. It will be interesting to see how he fits in if the team brings Tommylee Lewis and Ted Ginn back.

But I also think a lot of the opportunities were created by how the Eagles defended. Will Smith get open the same way when equal attention is paid? We’ll find out. I do think the team answered a big question, though. We wondered what would happen when a team focused on taking Thomas away. Now we know.

Follow Nick Underhill on Twitter, @nick_underhill.​