It's on people, the season is officially starting for the Saints today! The bitter rival Falcons are in town and we're looking to show them an absolutely miserable time. I'll be in attendance at this game so my twitter may not be as active as it usually is during games. As we know, these NFC South games always count more than other regular season matchups. Last year the Falcons raced very easily to a huge NFC South lead early before coasting to a division title, so beating them on opening day would make them play catch up from the onset of the season. This is not a "must win" by any stretch, but being at home against the Falcons on opening day it takes on about as significant importance as a week 1 game could possibly have. Don't forget to make your predictions for this game if you haven't already. Here's the five things I'm looking for:
1. Can the Saints slow down Steven Jackson?
The Falcons switch from Michael Turner to Steve Jackson has the whole football world buzzing. The Falcons fans are drooling, the national media seems to universally applaud, and even some Saints fans are nervous. But I talked to a Rams fan recently that knows his team inside and out, and he told me Jackson was largely finished. According to him the burst of speed and physical edge Jackson possessed have started to decline significantly. It's why the Rams let him go. I don't know how accurate that is, or if maybe playing for a new team that's much better will help him to bounce back, but it will be interesting to see how this move plays out. The Saints' defense played two pretty solid games against the Atlanta offense last year and it was because they were able to shut down the run in both games which forced the Falcons to be one dimensional. It may be harder to do with Jackson back there, but that's still what the Saints have to do. The Falcons are going to make plays with Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White. That's a given. But if the Saints can at least neutralize the run, it puts more pressure for those weapons to make plays more consistently.
2. Is the offense in midseason form?
The starting unit in preseason looked quite good and Drew Brees was very sharp. So good, in fact, that they played very little. Payton saw enough solid performance from his squad that he didn't feel the extra reps were necessary. That did diminish injuries (Joe Morgan is the only offensive player hurt right now), but the concern is whether they'll be firing on all cylinders right from the first quarter of the first game. Last season, it took them a half to get going against the Redskins and that can't happen here. This Falcons defense can be exposed, so the Saints need to jump on them early.
3. How do the Saints cover kicks?
I'm confident Thomas Morstead will do his thing and limit the amount of honest opportunities at a return the Falcons will get. If the Falcons do get a shot at a return, though, the coverage units make me very nervous. They were a disaster late last season, they were a disaster in preseason, and the Saints let their best cover guy go to boot in Courtney Roby. Setting up field position is instrumental in a game like this and can make the difference between a win and a loss. I'll be looking for the Saints gunners to surprise me and make that open field tackle when called upon.
4. How do the outside linebackers perform?
There are only three outside linebackers on the Saints' roster currently. Parys Haralson, Junior Galette and Martez Wilson. Galette and Wilson have sat out almost the entirety of preseason. I'm assuming Haralson and Galette will start, but I'm sure Wilson will get some reps too. But how will they play? Wilson and Galette saw almost no action this camp and Haralson just joined the team a week ago. They are going to be rusty and perhaps confused with the lack of reps and preparation. You know Atlanta will test them early by running off tackle and exposing them in coverage. Hopefully the lack of preparation won't impact their performance too negatively. But if I'm picking one position that is absolutely not ready for this game, it's probably OLB.
5. Can Keenan Lewis and Kenny Vaccaro reverse the recent fortunes of the defensive backfield?
The two biggest pickups this offseason, by far, were defensive backs. The Saints invested serious coin in cornerback Keenan Lewis via free agency, and they used their 1st round pick to take safety Kenny Vaccaro. Both will play a lot. But will they improve the dumpster fire that's been this defensive backfield in recent years? Patrick Robinson has been shockingly horrible, and the Harper/Jenkins safety tandem in coverage has been bad much more often than anything else. Jabari Greer is above average, but he's not getting younger. So can this infusion of young talent be enough to improve the overall play of the unit? It's all on these two guys, because we can't expect much different from the other guys. The test as early as week 1 against this potent Falcons' offense will be quite stern.