THE NUTS AND BOLTS
WHEN: Noon Sunday
WHERE: Georgia Dome, Atlanta
RADIO: WWL-AM, 870; WWL-FM, 105.3; KMDL-FM, 97.3; WDGL-FM, 98.1
RECORDS: New Orleans 6-9, Atlanta 8-7
COACHES: Saints’ Sean Payton, 10th season (86-57); Falcons’ Dan Quinn, 1st (8-7)
Atlanta struck the unthinkable blow, denying Carolina its chance at an undefeated season with a 20-13 victory. A big-time Julio Jones touchdown catch gave the Falcons the spark they needed, but the lion’s share of the credit goes to a defense that kept Cam Newton from hitting the big plays that have become his staples this season.
Atlanta appears to have found its franchise back in Devonta Freeman, the second-year player who has developed into one of the NFL’s better all-around options. Freeman is averaging 4.1 yards per carry on his way to 980 rushing yards, and he’s been the Falcons’ second-most prolific receiver, hauling in an impressive 71 passes for 560 yards. All told, Freeman has 13 touchdowns, and he has been consistent all season long behind Atlanta’s offensive line.
But the big gun is Jones, who has caught an unreal 127 passes for 1,722 yards and eight touchdowns, although he was largely ineffective in the first game against the Saints. Despite the presence of Jones, though, the explosive Atlanta passing attack has struggled in the season’s second half, hampered by one of the worst seasons of Matt Ryan’s career. Ryan has thrown for 4,257 yards this season, but he has tossed 15 interceptions and just 19 touchdowns, and the turnovers have been a continuing problem in Atlanta’s late-season swoon.
Under Quinn, Atlanta’s defense has made some big strides. The Falcons rank 15th in the league in yards allowed per game (344.8), 14th in points allowed at 21.7 per game and right in the middle of the pack against both the run and the pass. Atlanta’s biggest weakness has been a pass rush that has produced just 19 sacks, led by four from rookie Vic Beasley, whose strip-sack of Newton helped seal the Falcons’ upset bid last week.
The Falcons have made up for its lack of a pass rush with a solid secondary, led by a pair of talented cornerbacks in Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, who have combined for 25 passes defended. A relatively healthy William Moore has helped provide a physical presence in the defensive backfield, although New Orleans exploited the middle of the field with Benjamin Watson in the first meeting between the two teams. Atlanta also still needs some situational work; the Falcons rank near the bottom of the league in the red zone and on third down.
A familiar face is now kicking for the Falcons in veteran Shayne Graham, who has made all but one of his 11 field-goal attmpts since taking over for Matt Bryant. Return man Eric Weems is one of the league’s most dangerous weapons on special teams.