It's hard to believe we're just a few days removed from the epic battle that was the 49ers game, and already the Saints are thrust back into the thick of things this time on the road. The Falcons are without Julio Jones which makes their offense much less potent, and with their 2-8 record they don't have much left to play for. Perhaps the last meaningful possibility they have left is beating the Saints at home in front of their fans. So the Saints should take this one seriously even if they have tired legs. The Saints are still just one game ahead of Carolina but they have the opportunity here to pick up another win within the division to help boost their narrow lead. Here's five things I'll be looking for:
1. Can the Saints come out with energy early?
I have no doubt that as the game unfolds and the Saints get going they will play at a high level. What I'm worried about is the beginning of the game, and if the Saints can come out of the gate with intensity and focus. I truly believe there is a huge opportunity to end this game in the first quarter. The Falcons completely quit against the Bucs on Sunday and I just feel like an early 14-0 hole will result in just another implosion by them. Embarrassing them in their own stadium would be a lot of fun. However, if the Saints start slow or let the Falcons continue to hang around, then they'll be in a dogfight. The key for me is to crush the Falcons' spirity before they start thinking they have a chance.
2. Tony Gonzalez vs. Kenny Vaccaro redux.
Tony Gonzalez has missed practices with a toe issue, and at his age on a short week there's a chance he'll miss this game. It's against the Saints, though, so I'm sure he'll go. Then there's Kenny Vaccaro who is recovering from a concussion himself. He's been limited in practice, so I think he'll likely play, but there's a chance he'll be held out as well. When these two teams played in week 1 Vaccaro drew the assignment to shadow the deadly tight end wherever he went. The result was Gonzalez having a 3 catch for 36 yards performance. There was a touchdown, too, but Vaccaro was a pest to him and he came up with a critical breakup late to help win the game. It would be a shame if either player missed this game because that was an awesome matchup. Clearly if one of the guys doesn't have to face the other it's a big advantage.
3. How do the Saints hold up in coverage without Jabari Greer?
Life without Jabari Greer starts with this game and it will vault Corey White into the starting role. That's a little scary and exciting at the same time. White has been playing really well the last two weeks. And there's no doubt the best cover guy on the team is Keenan Lewis, so the Greer injury hurts maybe a tad less now than it would have a couple years ago. That said, Greer is still a good player and he's loved by everyone on the team. His departure hurts and I'm concerned there will be a drop off in performance without him.
4. Will we get Mark Ingram from week 1 or Mark Ingram from the last two weeks?
Mark Ingram had 9 carries for 11 yards against the Falcons in week 1. That's not going to cut it. Darren Sproles is banged up and might not even play, so the reps may increase for Ingram. He needs to get going on the ground to help open up the passing game and hopefully his recent performances is a sign of things to come. Last time the Saints were in the Georgia Dome Brees was hit what seemed like every play and the running game will prevent that from happening. The Saints need Ingram to play well in this game because he's likely fresh from having just 6 carries in the 49er game and he can lighten the load for the other banged up playmakers on a short week. The Falcons are 30th in the league at stopping the run so there should be some opportunities.
5. Does Drew Brees play well?
Two things about Brees that I'm curious about coming into this one… first he took the biggest hit he's maybe ever taken in a Saints uniform on Sunday. He has to be really sore and dealing with whiplash after what happened. So I'm curious to see how sharp he is after that hit, especially with the lack of time to heal and get treatment. Secondly, we all know what happened to Brees last time was in Atlanta. His touchdown streak ended and he threw five picks. I'm sure he's still pissed about that and it's personal. I don't care what he says in the press, it is personal. I know he's going to want to come out and torch the Falcons. So how does he respond given those two factors at play?