Atlanta Falcons vs. New Orleans Saints: Special Teams Could Lead to Upset

Christopher Beheler@@CBehelerCorrespondent IIINovember 9, 2012

August 9, 2012; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons defensive back Dominique Franks (24) makes a long punt return in the first half against the Baltimore Ravens at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE
Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE

The undefeated Atlanta Falcons will face the 3-5 New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday. Like most intense rivalries, the cliche "throw out the records" would apply here too.

Both teams have talented individuals on both sides of the ball. Both teams regularly battle for NFC South supremacy, so there is more than enough mutual contempt to go around. And having two of the league's best quarterbacks will only serve to make the game an even closer affair.

Yet an often overlooked area might put New Orleans in a position to upset their undefeated rivals.

Atlanta Falcons' Punt Return Woes

Atlanta's punt returner, Dominique Franks, has had a less-than-stellar year on special teams. During preseason, Franks looked determined and decisive while returning punts. In the regular season, he appears more timid.

But his decision making might be the Falcons' biggest concern.

Franks has had 34 opportunities over eight games so far. He has only attempted to return 10 of those; that is less than a third. He has more fair catches than returns with 13, which means 11 times he let the ball go by him. The ball has rarely made it to the end zone for a touch back.

The Falcons average starting inside the 20-yard line almost twice a game (15) after the opponent punts. The Atlanta Falcons offense is efficient, but 80- and 90-yard drives are a tall order for any team.

Saints Can Seize Opportunity

If the game turns into a battle of field position, the Saints might be able to capitalize. Drew Brees has a long history of big plays. This gives the Saints a puncher's chance no matter who they face.

If the Saints can get the Falcons mired down into 70-yard drives ending in field goals, the Saints offense will need fewer opportunities to take the lead. The Saints would happily trade two Falcons field goals for every Saints touchdown.

Double-Edged Sword

Forcing the Saints to punt is a victory for any defense. Yet, if the Saints do not fear Atlanta's punt return, they might feel a little less pressure on third downs. Brees is constantly trying to make a play, but less pressure means fewer mistakes. The less Brees feels the Saints "have to have it", then the fewer opportunities there will be for turnovers.

In the end, Dominique Franks might appear to be a footnote on the stat sheet. Most will focus on passing yards or rushing attempts, but Franks' decision making might give either team the edge.