Tonight’s installment of Thursday night football features two NFC South teams heading in very different directions. The Falcons go into the Superdome sitting at 5-0 while the Saints have been reeling and currently sit at 1-4. Records aside, there is good news for fans as there is a ton of shootout potential here. The Falcons have been winning on offense due in part to a balanced attack that has gotten a huge boost since Devonta Freeman has started at running back.
In his three games as the starter, Freeman has put together a stretch that resembles LaDainian Tomlinson in his prime. With contributions both in the run and pass, he has 537 total yards and a whopping seven touchdowns in that span. The good news for Freeman is he figures to have another nice outing in what looks to be a favorable matchup. Tevin Coleman (who was the starter before getting hurt) is also back, but only figures to see a handful of touches in this one.
With the struggles the Saints have shown in pass coverage, Matt Ryan also has the potential to put up some big numbers. To nobody’s surprise, he figures to be targeting Julio Jones early and often. Despite a nagging hamstring injury, Jones is supposedly going to be playing without limitations or a snap count. Against a Saints secondary with some holes, he should make the most of the 12 to 15 passes thrown his way. A Kyle Shanahan favorite, Leonard Hankerson has also appeared to gain the trust of Ryan early in the season. Depending on how the Saints go about covering Jones, Hankerson could really have some nice opportunities in this one and has gotten some red zone looks. Figuring to see at least six or eight passes his way, Hankerson makes for a solid third receiver in fantasy formats.
Once their top pass catching option, it appears Roddy White is third if not fourth in the pecking order these days. Since his solid season opener where he had four catches for 84 yards, White had a combined four catches for 31 yards in the following four games. While he may see some balls thrown his way, he shouldn’t be used in any fantasy leagues at this moment. If Ryan can’t get things going with any of the wideouts, this game has the potential to be a nice one for Jacob Tamme. The Saints have had difficulty covering tight ends and Tamme seems to have found a nice little rapport with Ryan having recorded over 75 yards in two of his last three games.
While the Saints run the same system and Drew Brees is still there, the offense just isn’t the same. At 36 years old, Brees is in an odd situation as he seems to be part of what has become a rebuilding year in New Orleans. However since coming back from his one game absence, Brees has thrown for almost 700 yards in the last two games and four touchdowns compared to one interception. Even though he isn’t the same slam dunk for fantasy purposes he used to be, Brees could be line for a nice evening and is worth starting.
Assuming game flow isn’t a factor, Mark Ingram figures to see 20 plus touches in this one. The Falcons have some nice defensive stats against the run, but it’s worth pointing out they’ve had some games where the opponents had to abandon it early. Ingram’s improved receiving chops could also get him some extra looks. C.J. Spiller hasn’t played as much as expected following his return, but could be effective tonight if given the chance. The Falcons have surrendered a league leading 49 receptions to running backs and Spiller has the ability to add on to that. If I had to guess, I’d say that both Spiller and Khiry Robinson see five to seven total touches in this one.
Once one of the league’s top units from top to bottom, the Saints receiving corps looks drastically different from just a few years ago. With Marques Colston figuring to miss this one due to injury, this group would be even more of a mystery to the casual fan who hasn’t seen much of them. While he’s not their “number one” wideout, I’m expecting Willie Snead to lead the team in receiving this week. The rookie from Ball State has earned more playing time with each game (Colston’s injury will help him even more) and in return seems to be gaining the trust of Brees. A shifty receiver with big play ability, Snead could see a good amount of balls thrown his way and makes for a solid starting option in points per reception formats.
Brandin Cooks entered the year with very high expectations but has had his ups and downs to this point. The encouraging news is that Brees looked comfortable taking some shots downfield in his direction last week where he can utilize his big time speed. Assuming the Saints move him around and prevent him from being covered by Desmond Trufant all game, Cooks should see seven to ten passes thrown his way. Those are the only Saints really worth considering for fantasy formats, but preseason darling Brandon Coleman could see some additional targets with Colston out. Tight ends Ben Watson and Josh Hill have also gotten some throws their way, but neither has been able to establish themselves as the clear cut starter.
Once one of the toughest places in the league to play, teams haven’t found it all too difficult to win in New Orleans these days. While I’m expecting the Saints come out ready to play, their shaky defense and banged up offensive line make it hard for me to pick them against a Falcons offense that can put up points while also fielding an improved defense. My predictions is Falcons 26 Saints (+3.5) 21.