Falcons NTs Chad Lavalais and Antwan Lake vs. Saints C LeCharles Bentley. This battle isn't one the Falcons will win often, and if Bentley dominates throughout, problems should surface quickly on the right side of Atlanta's defensive line. New Orleans LG Kendyl Jacox could find himself occasionally free to block MLB Keith Brooking and open bigger holes for Saints RBs Antowain Smith and Aaron Stecker. LT Wayne Gandy should have an easy afternoon against have any problem dominating rookie RDE Jonathan Babineaux, who is playing with little confidence right now.
Falcons LT Kevin Shaffer vs. Saints RDEs Darren Howard and Will Smith. Michael Vick needs better protection, and Shaffer isn't exactly the best at stopping speed-rushing ends. Look no further than his cataclysmic performance against Simeon Rice, who forced an end zone fumble with a sack three weeks ago and gave Tampa Bay a 14-0 lead.
INJURY IMPACT: Allen Rossum (knee) will not play, so DeAngelo Hall becomes the punt returner, a tandem of Justin Griffith-Roddy White-Michael Jenkins returns kickoffs and Leigh Torrence fills in as the nickel back. Hall is an immediate upgrade in speed, but he lacks the experience and patience to read blocks like Rossum. White could be an upgrade if he gets a chance because he is quicker than he looks and very physical. Torrence is nothing special, which is about on par with Rossum.
GAME PLAN: The Falcons must prove defensively that they have enough backbone to stop the run. Doing so will force Aaron Brooks, who has an unsightly 4.4 interception-per-attempt ratio, to put the ball in the air. Effective work against the run is the Achilles heel of Atlanta's defense, however, as Antowain Smith and Aaron Stecker proved by combining for 174 of New Orleans' 211 yards two months ago. The Saints are averaging 4.0 per carry, so this task looks pretty tough.
Vick was sacked five times last week, his highest single-game total since a 27-0 loss at Tampa Bay 12 months ago. It's a miracle he didn't fumble, but consider, too, that holding the ball against your body on a sack means that a quarterback is hurting another part of his body. Protection must improve dramatically.