As the undefeated Falcons march into the Superdome for a match up with the Saints on Sunday a question lingers. How are the Atlanta Falcons going to combat a very relevant and potent Saints aerial attack. The answer lies in one place and that is the interior defensive line. With Peria Jerry’s status in doubt for Sunday the Falcons have a prime opportunity to give their 2012 seventh round pick and pre-season stand out Travian Robertson some potentially influential play time.
The issue really boils down to Drew Brees himself. As we all know Brees is undersized as a QB. Standing in at only 6’0 Brees has trouble seeing over the OL and DL to get off passes. Sometimes he has to get on his tippy-toes just to see over the offensive line. This represents a problem when the Saints face teams that have taller DTs on their rosters. Just look at Brees’ worst games this year. Those would be vs. Washington and @ Denver, and both teams have something in common. The majority of their interior lineman (In the case of Washington their NT and 5-techs) are 6’4 or taller. This presented a problem for Brees in both cases as he had to view and then elevate the ball over taller defensive lineman. This gave them prime opportunity to knock down passes at the line of scrimmage.
That’s exactly what the Redskins did when they played the Saints. Redskins’ 5-tech Stephen Bowen (6’5) managed to get his hands on two passes at the LOS and ROLB Brian Orakpo also managed to get two balls patted down at the LOS. Size isn’t the only factor in this equation though. Interior defensive linemen also have to be able to push the pocket and get pressure up the middle, making already tough throws even tougher for Brees. The Redskins tandem of Cofield and Bowen combined for 5 QB pressures and both graded out positively against the pass according to Pro Football Focus. This combination of size and pressure creates a precarious situation for Brees and the Saints passing game. Brees relies on his guards to keep the passing lanes open and allow him to see the field and go through his options. When the pocket is muddled this becomes an issue for Brees; forcing him to throw passes when he doesn’t have a clear view of the field or scramble out and narrow his choices down to one side of the field. A muddled pocket also takes away Brees’ ability to step up into the pocket and helps turn pressure from the edge into QB sacks and hits. That is what happened when the Saints traveled to Denver.
Although the Denver defensive tackles weren’t dominant in their match up against the Saints they were able to get some push in the pocket. This helped Von Miller to have a big day against the Saints. He didn’t record a sack but Miller did record two QB Hits and 4 QB hurries. Miller took full advantage of his match up against Saints RT Zach Strief and good coverage from the Denver secondary combined with a decent interior pass rush gave him plenty of opportunities to harass Brees and stunt the vaunted Saints offense. Miller finished up with a grade of +5.7 (PFF) and the Saints finished with 14 points. The Denver interior which consisted of Derek Wolfe, Kevin Vickerson, and Justin Bannan did a decent job and yet again Brees had a pass knocked down by the 6’5 Vickerson. When the Saints opposition gets the edge on the interior the offense can be brought to a grinding halt.
The issue for the Falcons is that they lack the size to clog up the passing lanes and the push to collapse or muddle the pocket on a consistent basis. What makes it even more difficult for the Falcons is that they are going against a very good guard tandem in Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans. The Falcons have received great play from Jonathan Babineaux and Vance Walker, but Walker to this point has only has been in a rotational role . We’ve yet to see what Walker can do in a full time role, but we may get our first glimpse Sunday as Walker might be starting with Peria Jerry hobbled and Corey Peters still recovering from an injury. Babineaux has put in a phenomenal season but at age 31 he relies on rotations to keep him fresh. With Jerry dealing with an injury and Peters still recovering from one it only makes sense to give Travian Roberston his first slew of meaningful snaps. At 6’4 303 LBs Robertson is the biggest DT on the Falcons roster, and DL coach Ray Hamilton said that he may be the strongest defensive tackle as well.
Robertson’s combination of size and strength at the point of attack could be valuable for the Falcons this Sunday especially if they go into their sets that feature 3 DTs (one swung out at the DE position).Robertson has the size to clog up the passing lanes and the strength to push the pocket against New Orleans. Robertson proved in pre-season action that he could be a valuable asset to the Falcons as not only was he able to hold the POA but he was able to get penetration in both the passing and running games and did a great job of pushing the pocket. All these traits could come become very useful against a QB like Drew Brees who relies on a clean pocket to avoid pressure from the edges. Although Robertson hasn’t gone against guards like Grubbs and Evans it’s very possible that the Falcons could show some 5 down linemen looks against New Orleans and insert Robertson at the Nose and get him a one on one match up with New Orleans C Brian De La Puente. Puente has had a good year so far according to PFF (+7.7), but he gets a lot of aid from his guards in pass protection. With RT Zach Strief’s status up in the air the Saints may have to start Charles Brown. Brown struggled mightily last year including a very poor performance against the Rams and Chris Long where he surrendered 3 sacks. As such RG Jahri Evans may be helping out Brown instead of De La Puente. This would leave De La Puente isolated on an island with one of the DTs and if it’s Robertson he could make his impact felt in a big way.