FLOWERY BRANCH – With the NFC South title on the line, the Falcons (9-5) face the New Orleans Saints (11-3). on Monday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Here is a look at how the Falcons’ defensive line matches up against the Saints’ offensive line:
Matchup Advantage: New Orleans Saints
What happened last time: The Falcons stopped the run, holding the Saints to 41 yards rushing on 16 carries. The Falcons went sackless and had just two quarterbacks hurries against Brees, who passed for 322 yards and two touchdowns. Kansas City was able to get Aaron Rodgers to stop the Packers. The Falcons have to get sacks to beat the Saints. They seem to settle for moving him off of his spot, but in the last game they didn’t even do that.
Falcons’ starters: Right end John Abraham, right tackle Jonathan Babineaux, left tackle Corey Peters and left end Ray Edwards.
Falcons’ key reserves: Ends Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury, and tackles Peria Jerry and Vance Walker.
Saints’ starters: Left tackle Jermon Bushrod, left guard Carl Nicks, center Brian de la Puente, right guard Jahri Evans and right tackle Zach Strief.
Saints’ key reserves: Center/guard Matt Tennant and tackles Pat McQuistan and William Robinson.
Matchups to watch: Abraham vs. Bushrod and Peters vs. Evans.
Abraham is coming off a monster 3 1/2-sack game and has played stronger over the past three games. Bushrod is a critical part of a unit that protects quarterback Drew Brees like he’s a Brink’s truck.
The Falcons have 30 sacks which ranks 19th in the league. The Saints’ line has given up only 23 sacks which is the fourth-lowest total in the league.
Evans and Nicks both went to the Pro Bowl last year and are widely considered the best guard tandem in the league. But the development of Bushrod and steady play of Strief have been impressive this season.
“Bushrod was a starter last year,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “Strief was their extra offensive lineman in their ‘big’ package. He’s a guy that has stepped into a starting role this year. Again, they’ve done a very good job with protecting the quarterback and also running the football with their run blocking.”
The Saints have a major weight advantage over the smaller and quicker Falcons. Bushrod (315) is 42 pounds heavier than Abraham, Nicks (343) is 43 pounds heavier than Babineaux, Evans (318) is 13 pounds heavier than Peters and Strief (320) is 42 pounds heavier than Edwards.
“It’s a big offensive line,” Smith said. “The two guards and the two tackles are really big men and they’ve done a very good job. I think you can see by the statistics that they’ve put up, not only scoring but passing and rushing yards.”
The unit has been sturdy over the last six games after giving up six sacks in the Saints’ upset 31-21 loss to St. Louis on Oct. 30.
Behind the line, the Saints are averaging 456.7 yards per game (first in the league), 331.4 yards passing (first) and 125.4 rushing (eighth).
–D. Orlando Ledbetter, The Atlanta Falcons beat blog