After several down seasons, the Atlanta Falcons have come out and dominated opponents in 2015. They try to extend their hot streak against the division rival New Orleans Saints on Thursday Night Football.
The Falcons expected big things when they hired former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn to replace Mike Smith as head coach. However, few believed the team could improve this much this quickly. Atlanta not only owns an undefeated record, but the team has shown significant growth on both sides of the ball as the season has progressed. After two close wins over division rivals to open up the year, the Falcons have won their three most recent games by a combined score of 112-68.
Part of that scoring outpour unsurprisingly emanates from superstar wide receiver Julio Jones. In five games, Jones has amassed 43 catches for 545 yards, both best in the NFC. The wideout also has four touchdowns to go along with those monster numbers. The only negative about Jones is his nagging hamstring injury, which has the Falcons listing him as questionable for the game. Still, he has yet to miss a game this season and there is little reason to expect him not to take the field on Thursday. Atlanta also has found a viable rushing threat in second-year tailback Devonta Freeman, who has 405 yards on the year.
But while Jones garners most of the headlines, the improved defensive play has helped the Falcons secure the top position in the NFC South. First-round pick Vic Beasley has already made an impact, collecting 12 tackles and two sacks in his young career. Adrian Clayborn appears to have been a wise investment, ranking second on the team in sacks and total pressures. Quinn has also begun to unleash the potential of 2014 second-round pick Ra'Shede Hageman. Combined with veteran Kroy Biermann, the Falcons have the ingredients for a potent pass rush.
As for the Saints, little has gone right in 2015. The offensive line has been a mess, resulting in Drew Brees missing the first game of his Saints career to injury. The team's receivers look nothing like the dynamic pass catchers of yesteryear. Meanwhile, the defense continues to struggle, especially in the secondary, where penalties and blown coverages have become the norm. The Saints have won only one game this season, and even that victory looks like an anomaly given the injury woes of their opponent that day, the Dallas Cowboys.
If Saints are going to compete against the Falcons, they need to stop the run and hope Jones has an off night. Though Matt Ryan has the skill set to win games on his own, his track record in the Superdome leaves a lot to be desired. In his first seven seasons, Ryan has won just two of his seven games in New Orleans. At the same time, this is the best team Ryan has played on in years against perhaps the worst Saints team since the pre-Brees era. The opportunity is there for Ryan to change the narrative.
How to watch
When: 8:25 p.m. ET
Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans
TV: CBS, NFL Network
Commentators: Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Tracy Wolfson