When the schedule first came out, the New Orleans Saints' Week 12 Thursday night game at the Atlanta Falcons looked like it might be the toughest one they would face all year -- on the road on a short week. But the injury-plagued Atlanta Falcons (2-8) have fallen on hard times, losing their last four in a row.
The New Orleans Saints are 8-2, winners of two straight. Perhaps both of their records should be thrown out the window, however, in a rivalry matchup that almost always comes down to the final possession.
Here's what to watch for:
White's promotion: The Saints have shown this year that they can make up for the loss of injured veterans on defense. But losing cornerback Jabari Greer to a season-ending knee injury last week might be the most significant loss to date. He was playing at a high level this year as the team's No. 2 cornerback. And the Saints' ability to trust cornerbacks Keenan Lewis and Greer to hold up in single coverage has been a big part of their success.
The good news is that second-year backup Corey White has shown a lot of potential as a physical corner and sure tackler. Pro Football Focus has given him a grade of plus-5.9 in coverage this season, ranking him 11th among all 180 cornerbacks in the NFL. But White will probably still face growing pains as a full-time starter.
"It's unfortunate that Jabari went down like that with him being a good leader on and off the field for us. That's tough," White said. "But we always believe in all our teammates here and we believe in the 'next man up.' I'm pretty sure Jabari believes in me and so does every one of my secondary teammates, so we'll see how it goes."
Saints coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan both expressed confidence in White this week.
"This Corey White has really been an ascending player. He's been outstanding," Ryan said. "He's a physical player. He's a smart kid. He's just getting better and better. We've had lost some great players along the way and we've been so fortunate to have excellent players behind them. This Corey White has just been begging for an opportunity. And he's gonna be great when he gets in there."
Luckily the Saints don't have to face dynamic Atlanta receiver Julio Jones, who is also out for the season. But Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has played well at home his year, receiver Roddy White has been getting healthier, and they have depth in the passing game with tight end Tony Gonzalez and receiver Harry Douglas.
Better Brees: Last year, under similar circumstances on a Thursday night game at Atlanta, quarterback Drew Brees had arguably his worst performance as a Saint with zero touchdowns and five interceptions in a 23-13 loss. Although Brees said he moved past that performance after beating the Falcons in New Orleans in Week 1, you just know it's got to be eating away at him a little bit with his competitive drive.
Although both team played sloppy in that game last year, Brees insisted that his miscues weren't attributed to the short week of preparation.
"There was no rust in that game, honestly," Brees said. "I felt as good going into that game as I've ever felt physically, mentally. For one reason or another, I can look at every one of those throws and say, 'This is what happened on each of them.' I left the ball a little inside on the first one. Tipped off the running back's hands on the second one. Never should've thrown the third one; I tried to force it. The fourth one, we were in two-minute mode, getting my arm hit on one and tried to force the other one. All things that are preventable."
Sproles, Evans questionable: The two biggest injury questions tonight for the Saints are both significant -- running back Darren Sproles (knee/ankle) and guard Jahri Evans (ankle). They both returned to the game last week after suffering their injuries, but then they were the only two Saints players held out of practice on this short week. So it's really too hard to predict whether they'll play.
Sproles is obviously one of the Saints' most dynamic weapons on offense, so he'll be missed if he can't play. But the Saints have always shown an ability to absorb the loss of any one weapon in their deep and versatile offense. With or without Sproles in the lineup, I expect a big night for Saints running back Pierre Thomas in the matchup against a run-down Falcons defense.
Obviously Evans would be a big loss too. The Saints struggled when he was out of the lineup earlier this year. However, his rookie backup Tim Lelito has gained experience as the season has gone on, and he played well as an extra blocker in run formations last week.
Falcons' line dance: The Falcons are considering a handful of lineup changes along the offensive line. They'll have their hands full against a Saints' defensive front that has been outstanding this year. Power rusher Cameron Jordan, speed rusher Junior Galette and inside force Akiem Hicks are all coming off one of their best performances of the season last week.