The Saints boast an elite defense this year, with this squad ranked sixth in defensive DVOA (12th against the pass, sixth against the run) while having allowed the fifth fewest yards and the 10th fewest points per game. The Saints rank sixth in drive success rate allowed and 10th in sacks, and they have recently held the Cowboys to 10 points, the Buccaneers to 24 (which is decently impressive), the Jaguars to six, and the Cardinals to nine. They allowed the Bears to score 25, but Cordarrelle Patterson produced a special teams touchdown there. The Falcons enter this game (in the Superdome) with a Vegas-implied total of only 19.0 — though given what the Falcons offense can do when things come together, this should not be taken as a projection so much as a median mark in a range of potential outcomes. The Saints have found ways to completely slow down some teams. But we should also keep in mind that the Texans, Rams, and Seahawks all scored 27 to 28 in this matchup at the beginning of the season.
The Saints’ pass defense relies on Marshon Lattimore to put an opponent’s top perimeter weapon in check — something he has done an excellent job with since a slow start to the season. Lattimore’s best outing came when he goose-egged Mike Evans (a potential trouble spot we were able to spot due to Evans’ matchup problems with Lattimore in the past, swinging us over to Godwin instead). This week, our exploration of Julio Jones in his games against the Saints with Lattimore gives us a different story, with Julio producing the following stat lines across four contests ::
The lack of touchdowns, of course, is illustrative of what we hate about relying on Julio in this sometimes-maddening Falcons offense, but the beauty of this matchup for Julio is that the Saints’ man-leaning approach leads to more downfield work — enabling more opportunities for big yardage games as long as the targets are there. (Julio saw 11+ targets in three of those four games — though that was in a Sarkisian offense that, for all its faults, at least emphasized Julio. The same cannot be said for Dirk Koetter’s offense this year, which has created recent target counts for Julio of 7 // 7 // 9 // 9 // 12.)
Hooper has seen recent target counts with Matt Ryan of 11 // 9 // 8 // 5, and there is nothing in the matchup to suggest his usage should materialize in a different range than that. The biggest issue for volume will be the Saints’ ability to shut down opponent drives quickly; but as long as play volume is there for the Falcons offense as a whole, this pass-heavy unit should be able to feed Hooper seven or more looks once again.
Ridley remains what he always is: an intermediate/deep target whose typical expectation is around six targets, and who can occasionally spike or drop from there. Ridley has topped 93 yards only twice in 24 games and has seen double-digit targets only twice as well, but he has 14 touchdowns in 24 games, reminding of the sort of upside he possesses when things break his way.
Gage is an interesting piece, as he played 43 of a possible 76 snaps in the Falcons’ last game and saw nine targets. These targets came in the sort areas of the field, and came from Matt Schaub, and came in a game with 52 pass attempts, so expectations should obviously be tempered; but four to six targets is viable here at the lower ends of the price range.
This offense wraps up with Devonta Freeman, who should be able to soak up a large chunk of the Falcons snaps again this week (78.9% in Week 8) with Ito Smith now looking likely to miss with a neck issue. The matchup is brutal (the Saints are allowing the fewest rushing yards and the fifth fewest receiving yards to running backs), but the role needs to at least be mentioned.
“Role” is the issue in the Saints’ backfield, as this team is good enough to break through the below-average matchup against the Falcons (10th in DVOA against the run; 3.91 yards allowed per carry; incredibly, the fewest receiving yards allowed to running backs this year), but with Latavius Murray priced up for “just in case Alvin Kamara misses” and Kamara priced for his ceiling rather than his average range of production, it’s tough to see this backfield as a staple piece. If heading here for the upside, Kamara has recent touch counts on the year (starting with the most recent) of 18 // 22 // 20 // 25 // 14 // 20. This level of touches at his price would require some really nice efficiency; and while he is very capable of producing highly efficient games (even in below-average matchups), there should be some concern that Latavius’ strong showing will lead to the Saints keeping Kamara on the lower ends of his touch range in his first game back, while allowing Latavius to handle any garbage time work as well.
“Role” is not a concern for Michael Thomas, on the other hand, as he has target counts on the year (beginning with the most recent) of 11 // 11 // 12 // 13 // 9 // 7 // 13 // 13. Thomas’ aDOT is basically the same as Golden Tate’s, which has always been our knock on him in the NFL Edge: at his shallow aDOT, he needs so many targets to produce (and last year he had only three games in his last 13 with more than eight targets, with only two games in that stretch of 100+ yards — making it truly astonishing that the field kept paying up for him for months). This year, however, the Saints have been forceful in their usage of Thomas all year, and he has responded with as many 100-yard games through eight weeks as he had all season last year. While the Falcons have been decent against the run, they rank 31st in DVOA against the pass and have allowed the ninth most yards and the fourth most touchdowns to the wide receiver position. We obviously prefer players with downfield roles, but Thomas’ locked-in usage and touchdown upside keep his floor and ceiling high in this spot.
The rest of the Saints offense is scraps, with Ted Ginn the only other wide receiver to top even three targets this year (not a typo), and with neither Ginn nor Jared Cook topping seven targets all year. (This offense might sometimes give touchdowns to Taysom Hill and other role players, but the Saints are going to move the ball through Thomas and the backfield first, through Ginn and Cook second, and through little else besides.)
JM’s Interpretation ::
It’s not as if it’s a surprise to say that the Saints’ offense should produce (they have the highest Vegas-implied total on the slate), so while these players are priced up for their roles (and while there are some workload concerns on Kamara at his price), we should fully expect some strong scores to emerge in this spot, with Thomas slotting into Tier 1 in this high-value role/matchup, and with Kamara carrying Tier 3 appeal for his slate-breaking upside. Behind these two, Ginn and Cook can be considered in large-field play (while Drew Brees — in spite of the short-area nature of this passing attack — could obviously “touchdown” his way to a big game, and could “volume” his way to yardage).
On the Falcons’ side, Nothing pops off the page with the Saints defense on tap; but this is an offense that can always be considered, with Matt Ryan // Julio // Hooper all squarely in the Tier 3 conversation, Ridley in the large-field conversation, and Gage in the mix for salary savers who can produce a respectable score. There are also scenarios in which the Falcons could hit for big plays and turn this into an actual shootout. I don’t mind the idea of building some game stacks around that idea.
:: Bonus feature: find current NFL Defensive Identities here!