Saints come marching in for grand opening to season

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The 2014 NFL season could not come soon enough for Atlanta Falcon’s fans. At long last, it’s here. Technically, of course, every team in the league has been undefeated since the moment Seattle finished off its Super Bowl XLVIII blowout of Denver. In reality, though, an offseason is much tougher for a team coming off a 4-12 campaign than for, say, a Super Bowl champion. We here in Atlanta had to sit around for eight months with a 4-12 record.

We didn’t like it and, by the looks of things, neither did the team. The front office did not exactly go crazy in free agency, but it certainly addressed the parts of the roster that required some tinkering. The Falcons upgraded their defensive line with Tyson Jackson, Paul Soliai and rookie Ra’Shede Hageman, added offensive line help in the form of Jon Asamoah and first-round draft pick Jake Matthews and brought in arguably the most electric return man in league history in Devin Hester. Each of those individual ingredients is enticing and inspires hope for both the immediate and distant future of this franchise. Now we finally get to see if the lump sum equals a return to past glories to which the Falcons have been accustomed since the beginning of the Mike Smith- Thomas Dimitroff-Matt Ryan era in 2008.


It won’t take long to figure out what we have on our hands with these Atlanta Falcons, because up first on the 2014 schedule is a visit from NFC South-rival New Orleans this Sunday. Since Drew Brees arrived in the Big Easy from San Diego in 2006, the Saints have perennially been among the favorites to win the division, the conference and even the Super Bowl. This year is no exception. The Saints, who have compiled no worse than 11-5 records in three of the last four seasons, are coming off an 11-5 campaign in 2013 and have their roster largely intact.

The test presented by this particular opponent will be an especially tough one for Atlanta’s defense, specifically the line and the secondary. Perhaps in no other regular-season game of 2014 will it be more important to put pressure on the quarterback and contain pass-catchers. Brees, of course, is back for a ninth season in New Orleans. Speedy running back Darren Sproles is gone, but Brees still has Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas at his disposal in the backfield plus Marques Colston at receiver and Jimmy Graham in the tight end slot. Arguably the most feared man at his position in the entire NFL, Graham has the skill-set of a wideout plus the size and physicality of a tight end (he actually petitioned to get paid as a wide receiver instead of a tight end in arbitration hearings this summer, but lost his case).

“Drew is a great quarterback,” Falcons’ defensive coordinator Mike Nolan told reporters at a recent practice. “He’s a Hall of Fame QB; he hasn’t been voted in yet, but there’s no question the guy is going in. He’s awesome. He’s a great one to compete against; if you’re a competitor, that’s who you want to go against and I think our players feel the same way. He’s very good at recognizing the blitz. He’s very good at getting rid of the ball, avoiding the sack in the pocket. The challenge is there, not only from a scheme standpoint, but more importantly from a player’s standpoint and when it gets down to it, the players are the guys that want to make the plays and have to make them.”

The Saints finished fourth in the league in total offense last season, which is nothing out of the ordinary. Where they surprised, however, was on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan arrived in New Orleans in 2013 and instantly revitalized a unit that had finished dead last—with room to spare—in the NFL in total defense one year earlier. Under Ryan, the Saints’ defense allowed just 305.7 yards and 19.0 points per game (both good for fourth best in the league). Safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper have since departed along with linebacker Jonathan Vilma, but the team brought in safety Jairus Byrd via free agency.

“Their front, how hard and consistent their front plays, the consistently-good play of their middle linebacker (Curtis Lofton) and obviously they have the new addition of Byrd at free safety,” Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter told the team’s website when asked what stands out about the Saints’ defense. “It’s a rivalry game against a great defense and we know that it will be a great challenge for our guys, but one that everyone is looking forward to.”


The Falcons and Saints are no strangers to boasting some of the best skill-position players in the league. In the trenches, though, it has not always been the same story for these two franchises. Perhaps to an even greater extent than in most games, that is exactly where this one could be won and lost.

Matthews is getting thrown into the fire at left tackle as a result of Sam Baker’s season-ending knee injury last month. As a result, the sixth overall selection in this year’s draft will have the task of dealing with Saints’ defensive end and sack-master Jordan Cameron—who brought down opposing quarterbacks 12.5 times last season and 20.5 times over the past two years. The Falcons allowed 44 sacks in 2013 (10th most in the NFL) and saw their quarterback get hit on exactly 100 occasions (tied for fifth most). When Atlanta has the ball, the same tackle-end matchup will pit the quick-footed but inexperienced Terron Armstead of the Saints against Kroy Biermann and Jonathan Babineaux of the Falcons. Atlanta, which generated only 28 sacks last season, knows better than anyone that giving Brees time in the pocket is a recipe for disaster.

A Week 1 loss to an opponent widely expected to reach the playoffs would not qualify as a disaster, but as far as season openers go, they do not get much bigger than this. The Falcons have demons to erase and statements to make after the relative debacle of 2014. What better way to do it than at the expense of a bitter rival?

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