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Thursday Night Football Preview: Shootout in New Orleans

The Falcons will look to remain undefeated when they visit New Orleans for their Thursday Night Football game against the Saints.

This week's Thursday Night Football matchup features two NFC South division rivals living on opposite sides of the road.

The Falcons are on a roll as one of the top teams in the NFL with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations, while the Saints are doing everything they can to just salvage a winning record this year.

So when these two teams meet, everyone will be watching to see if the Falcons will keep the squads on their similar early-season trajectories, or if the Saints can manage a huge upset that just may turn their nightmare season around.

The Pre-Game Rundown

While the Falcons' overtime win over the Redskins brought them to an undefeated 5-0 record and first place in the NFC South last week, unfortunately for them, the team didn't leave the game unscathed.

Julio Jones was forced into a season-high 73 snaps last Sunday, and concerns whether Jones would be able to handle a full workload on Thursday began surfacing. Number-two receiver Leonard Hankerson also missed a good portion of Week 5 due to a rib injury.

Yet, despite early week concerns regarding Jones and Hankerson and their various injuries, both Falcons wideouts are officially listed as probable for this matchup.

While the passing game led by Matt Ryan and Jones have been excellent so far, the biggest surprise for the Falcons this season is undoubtedly Devonta Freeman. After the team had seemingly moved on from their second-year tailback -- drafting Tevin Coleman in the third round and making him the lead back over the first one-and-a-half games of the year before a fractured rib forced him out of the Falcons' Week 2 contest against the Giants -- Freeman took over for the talented rookie and began showing everyone why he, and not Coleman, deserved to be the number-one running back on this squad.

Freeman has made the most of his opportuntiy, becoming the most efficient tailback in the NFL on a per touch basis according to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, and he now currently leads the league in rushing touchdowns (8) and sits second in rushing yards (405).

And standing across the field from the Falcons this Thursday will be a team on the opposite end of the spectrum. The Saints find themselves in a free fall in the standings at a division-worst 1-4.

Following an injury scare that threatened to cost Drew Brees his 2015 season, the Saints quarterback seems to be rounding back to full strength, as he's put up 694 yards and 4 touchdowns to just a single interception in his two games back since sitting out Week 3. But even a fully healthy Brees may not be enough to stop the Saints recent fall from the standings, and it's starting to feel more and more like this is the beginning of the end for the Sean Payton era in New Orleans.

The Saints' Game Scipt

With the Saints' owning the third-highest pass-to-run ratio with a mark of 1.91, Brees should see plenty of pass attempts in this game.

Known to spread the ball around so far this season, Brees should lock in on his two main weapons in Willie Snead and Brandin Cooks. Last week, despite targeting 10 different receivers, Snead and Cooks still saw 11 and 9 targets, respectively. Emerging as Brees number-one target in the passing game, Snead has been one of the lone bright spots for the Saints, and currently his 0.92 Reception NEP per target ranks him in the top 10 in efficiency among all receivers with at least 30 targets this year.

In the backfield, the workload will be split between C.J. Spillerr and Mark Ingram. Spiller has seen his snap count increase from 7 to 15 to 21 to 19 in his four games since returning from injury in Week 2. This has come at the direct expense of Ingram, who has seen his snap count drop from 51 to 43 to 41 to 35 over this same time span.

While on paper this looks like a nice matchup for the Saints running game -- the Falcons rank just 14th against the run and the Saints are 11th in rushing efficiency according to our strength-of-schedule adjusted advanced metrics -- the pass-heavy play-calling of Sean Payton has resulted in New Orleans ranking just 25th in the league in rush attempts per game at 23.4 and 29th in the league in rushing yards with a paltry 85.4 per contest. Expect that trend to continue this Thursday night.

The Falcons' Game Scipt

If Jones isn't used as a decoy in this contest, expect Ryan to look his way early and often in what should be a prime matchup against a secondary that ranks just 17th against the pass according to our schedule-adjusted NEP metrics.

And in what should be a high-scoring affair, the secondary receivers should see plenty of touches as well. Emerging number-two wideout, Hankerson, continues to break out as a big part of this offense, and will likely be the prime beneficiary of all the defensive attention that will go Jones' way. Indeed, last week after returning in the second half from a rib injury suffered earlier in the game, while Hankerson was unable to haul in all three of his targets after the break, what is encouraging is that all three of these targets came on key downs with the Falcons in scoring position.

Along with Hankerson, with the Falcons wideouts at less than 100%, the team could also lean on their tight end Jacob Tamme once again, who led the team in targets (10), receptions (9), and receiving yards (94) last week with Atlanta's receiving corps ailing.

In the running game, this is clearly Freeman's backfield now. Despite rumors that Coleman could eat into Freeman's touches with his return in Week 5, Freeman continued to dominate the snap count, with him outsnapping Coleman 68 to 9 in their matchup against the Redskins. And as I wrote about earlier this week, since taking over the starting role in Week 3, Freeman has accounted for 47% of this team's total yards and his eight rushing touchdowns are three ahead of the next closest player in Jeremy Hill.

With all this being said, the Falcons should be able to move the ball at will against the Saints' bottom-ranked defense.

Fantasy Football Implications

Most of the time it's a good idea to fade players in the Thursday Night Football game. This isn't one of those times.

With Atlanta ranking 16th in defensive efficiency and New Orleans ranking dead last according to our NEP metrics, this game has the makings of a shootout.

The matchup for Ryan doesn't get much better than this, as he faces a New Orleans defense that ranks 31st in defensive efficiency against the pass. And while Ryan has only finished as a top-12 quarterback in two out of the season's first five games, he still stands as the 12th-ranked quarterback overall, making him a fine start this Thursday.

There are some concerns about Jones' hamstring and his usage for this game coming off a short week, but this was the same narrative we heard before Week 5, and yet Jones still managed to find himself play on 73 snaps in a close contest against Washington. And with Jones going up against a burnable Brandon Browner, he remains a must start for all teams that have him rostered.

Beyond this, with the Saints giving up third most fantasy points to tight ends in standard-scoring leagues, Tamme could be a nice streaming option for those in need at the position.

And I probably don't have to say this, but in case you were wondering, start Freeman no matter what.

Brees should also be a nice start at quarterback, as he's produced a top-12 fantasy performance in three out of the four games he's played, including a QB3 and QB12 performance in Weeks 4 and 5, respectively.

Though Brees tends to spread the ball around, he seems to have found a new favorite receiver in Snead, making him a nice start this week as well as a WR3 or flex play. While Snead seems to be the more consistent option, reeling in passes last week against the Eagles when the game was still in doubt, with Brees' shouldler looking healthy, Cooks could break loose for a long touchdown against a pass defense that ranks 17th in defensive efficiency this season.

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