The Atlanta Falcons (5-0) are heading to the Superdome to take on the rival New Orleans Saints (1-4) in Week 6 of the 2015 NFL season. For the Falcons, their start to the season has been a dream come true, while the Saints have struggled to find an identity.
Atlanta has been led by great all-around play, both offensively and defensively. The team has bought into head coach Dan Quinn, and their run game has truly picked up the pace thanks to Devonta Freeman and arguably the NFL's most improved offensive line..
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For the Saints, it's been a defensive struggle -- they are tied for 29th in the NFL in points allowed per game at 28.6. The defense will look to turn things around and help out their offense a bit, but in this day and age, a scoring an average of 20.6 points per game just won't get the job done either.
Here are three keys to the game for both the Falcons and Saints.
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1. Take advantage of New Orleans' struggles against the run
Freeman has arguably been the best running back in the NFL over the past few weeks, so why stop using him now? New Orleans is the third-worst team in the NFL against the run, allowing 135.8 yards per game. So far in 2015, Freeman has 405 yards on the ground with eight touchdowns, after not playing much in the first two weeks of the season. There's no reason to try to fix what's not broken, so Freeman should be massively involved Thursday.
2. Give Matt Ryan opportunities to throw it downfield
While the run game will be a major focus for the Falcons, they can use the run game to open up the pass. The Saints have allowed 1,408 yards and nine touchdowns against opposing quarterbacks. Both Ryan and Freeman could be in for huge days, but after struggling in Week 5, expect to see Ryan open up the field a bit against the below-average Saints secondary.
3. Keep the Saints' run game in check
New Orleans has averaged just 85.4 yards per game on the ground, which is surprising considering they have Mark Ingram, C.J. Spiller and Khiry Robinson at running back. Overall, a lot has been placed on the shoulders of Drew Brees this season, and it's led the Saints to get off to a slow start. Expect New Orleans to attempt to use their run game to slow things down a bit against an offense averaging 32.4 points per game, but if the Falcons can shut that down, it'll bode well for them in this one.
1. Don't abandon the run
The biggest mistake a team can make when they're looking to slow down an opponent's offense is to give up on the run. Whether it's Ingram, Spiller or Robinson, the team simply needs to ride the hot hand on Thursday. The Saints need to find the hot hand and ride it. This will keep their defense off the field, and that should be their first priority.
2. Get to Matt Ryan
The Saints had exactly zero sacks and zero quarterback hits in the Week 5 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. In turn, they lost 39-17 and saw the Eagles basically do whatever they wanted offensively. If you're going to give any NFL quarterback time to sit back and let plays unfold in front of them, it's going to lead to a disaster. New Orleans needs to pressure Ryan early and often by sending extra blitzers off the edge.
3. Utilize Willie Snead when Atlanta locks in on Brandin Cooks
When the Falcons inevitably key in on wide receiver Brandin Cooks, the Saints need to respond with wide receiver Willie Snead. The rookie receiver from Ball State has become a go-to option for Brees, catching 12 balls over the last two weeks for 230 yards. It's obvious that his role in the offense is growing, and Brees should just continue to build the strong connection that we've seen in recent weeks.