Monday Night Football Preview: Prepare for a Barnburner in New Orleans
Ten years ago, the New Orleans Saints reopened the Superdome following the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina with an unforgettable 23-3 win over the Atlanta Falcon, highlighted by Steve Gleason's blocked punt leading to the game's first score.
Tonight, the two teams square off again on the 10-year anniversary of the reopening of the Superdome in what projects to be a high-scoring affair with two high-octane offenses and two poor defenses.
Through two weeks, numberFire's schedule-adjusted metrics rank Atlanta's offense second and New Orleans' ninth. Meanwhile, on the defensive side of the ball, Atlanta checks in at 31 and New Orleans ranks 21st.
The Saints enter Week 3 sitting at 0-2 following two close losses by a combined four points to the Oakland Raiders (35-34) and New York Giants (16-13). Drew Brees has started the season well, throwing for 686 yards and 5 touchdowns with no interceptions.
The Falcons enter this game 1-1 coming off a 35-28 win in Oakland last week. In Week 1, the Falcons fell to Jameis Winston and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31-24. Matt Ryan has started the season hot, lighting up the Raiders and Bucs for 730 yards, 5 touchdowns, and 1 pick.
According to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which measures a player's efficiency, Ryan has been one of the best quarterbacks in the league through two weeks. Ryan entered Week 3 second in Passing NEP per drop back (0.47) among all quarterbacks to have started a game this season. He trailed only Jimmy Garoppolo (0.49).
No team in the NFC South currently has a winning record, with the Bucs and Carolina Panthers both sitting at 1-2. With a win, the Falcons can move into sole possession of first place, and the Saints could move into a four-way tie for first after a disappointing start.
During what will most likely be an emotional anniversary at the Superdome, here are a few storylines to keep an eye on Monday night.
How Effective Will Julio Jones Be?
After missing the final drive of Atlanta's Week 2 win over Oakland, Julio Jones was absent from practice Thursday and Friday with a bruised calf. Despite being listed as questionable, Jones has said he will play and Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said having the extra day of rest this week with a Monday night game has helped Jones.
Through the first two weeks of the season, Jones has caught 9 of 13 targets for 172 yards and 2 touchdowns. Jones entered the week sixth in Reception NEP per target (1.25) among receivers with at least 5 catches.
A year after leading the league in passing targets with 203, Jones has only been targeted 13 times, putting him on pace for only 104 looks on the season. This is despite Ryan throwing 73 passes over the first two games. Earlier this week, Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan told reporters the Falcons don't plan on forcing the ball to Jones, instead having Ryan spread the ball around.
Jones leads the Falcons in receiving yards and touchdowns, but he is second on the team in targets, seeing three fewer than tight end Jacob Tamme. Free agent signee Mohamed Sanu has also been heavily involved, seeing the same number of targets (13) as Jones.
Falcons Go Running Back By Committee
Last season, Devonta Freeman was a workhorse for the Falcons following an early-season injury to Tevin Coleman. Freeman handled 265 carries, fourth-most in the league, churning out 1,056 yards (3.98 yards per carry) and 11 touchdowns.
This year, Freeman and Coleman have combined for a nearly 50/50 running-back-by-committee split. Freeman has played 54 percent of the snaps through two weeks, handling 32 touches, and Coleman has played 48 percent of the snaps, receiving 27 touches.
In terms of Rushing NEP per carry, Freeman (-0.06) has been more efficient than Coleman (-0.16) on the ground, and 50 percent of Freeman's 28 carries have boosted Atlanta's expected scoring. Only 30 percent of Coleman's 20 carries have done that. The league average rate for running backs last season was roughly 39 percent.
But in the passing game, Coleman (0.93) has been a superior performer in the air over Freeman (0.16), according to Reception NEP per target. Among running backs with at least five receptions, Coleman ranked third in NEP per target entering the week.
A Slow Start for Mark Ingram
Through two weeks, Mark Ingram has only handled 21 carries and has turned those into 88 yards but no touchdowns. He's also caught 6 passes for 46 yards. In terms of Rushing NEP per carry, Ingram ranked (-0.02) 13th out of 33 backs with at least 20 carries entering the week. But his 28.57 percent Success Rate ranked 29th.
Part of Ingram's slow start is the Saints' tendency to abandon the running game. Through the first two games this year, the Saints have thrown the ball on 71 percent of their plays.
But another factor in Ingram's lackluster opening stat line is the involvement of Travaris Cadet in the passing game. Ingram has played only 50 percent of New Orleans' snaps through two weeks, while Cadet has been in for 34 percent of the Saints' offensive snaps.
Cadet, thus far, only has 1 rush for 1 yard, but he has added 5 receptions for 31 yards and a touchdown.
Perhaps this is the week Ingram might be able to break out of his slump, as the Falcons' rush defense ranked 19th entering the week, according to our metrics.
Can Coby Fleener Finally Produce?
Speaking of slow starts for the Saints, it's been a brutal opening two weeks for Coby Fleener, whom the Saints signed in the offseason.
Fleener has caught only 3 of 12 targets for 35 yards and no touchdowns. Among the 18 tight ends with at least 10 targets on the season, Fleener's Reception NEP per target score (0.19) ranks dead last. His 25 percent catch rate also ranks 18th of 18.
Fleener is third on the Saints in targets, behind Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead. Last week, Drew Brees said Fleener will become an "even bigger part of the offense" moving forward as the pair develop chemistry.
Perhaps a Week 3 matchup against the Falcons might provide a starting point for Brees and Fleener to enhance that chemistry. Through two weeks, opposing tight ends have shredded the Falcons for a combined 15 catches, 138 yards, and 3 touchdowns. Overall, the Falcons' passing defense ranked 31st entering the week, according to our metrics.
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