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GET YOUR POPCORN READY: Addition of Alabama Rookie Makes Saints CB’s vs. Atlanta WR’s One of NFL’s Fiercest Match-Ups

Just when you thought the rivalry between the New Orleans Saints and their bitter and hated arch-rivals, the Atlanta Falcons, couldn't get any more intense this upcoming season than it was last year; this past off-season the Dirty Birds "reloaded" their top-notch offensive arsenal with another weapon — former University of Alabama All-American WR Calvin Ridley.

Yesterday, the 23-year old Coconut Creek, Florida native agreed to terms with the Falcons on his rookie contract; and while their team has yet to officially announce Ridley's signing, it's expected to come sometime later today (Thursday), according to the team's official website.

Ridley, the 26th-overall pick in this year's 2018 NFL Draft, joins fellow former Crimson Tide star and the NFL's #1 top-rated WR Julio Jones in what is expected to become one of the more dangerous three-man receiving combinations in football.

Photo courtesy of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Alongside Jones and Falcons #3 WR Mohamed Sanu, the talented rookie Ridley will now bring what NFL.com Around the NFL writer Nick Shook refers to as an "excellent, pro-ready route-running ability along with elite speed and separation skills that should immediately translate".

When lined up along with Jones and Sanu, Shook believes that Ridley will enjoy the benefit of less attention than the average first-round receiver, increasing his chances of early success.

As a result: Ridley in his rookie season will now be running routes for one of the NFL's best quarterbacks in Matt Ryan.  When combined with the former league MVP, Atlanta's offense stands to be one of the NFL's best.

And as Shook notes near the end of his column: the Falcons passing attack is certainly one of the League's most imposing units, at least on paper.

But as Saints fans will very quickly tell you: it DOESN'T mean that they're going to be "unbeatable".

Photo courtesy of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

That was never more evident when they faced off against Saints star CB Marshon Lattimore twice last season.

As you might recall, last year in Week #14 during the first head-to-head / one-on-one match-up between then-rookie Lattimore (who went on to be named 2017 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year) and Jones in early December at Atlanta on Thursday Night Football, one could make the argument that it was Julio that came out on top.

Jones had 5 catches for 98 yards; but when lined up directly against Lattimore, he was limited to 3 catches for 65 yards. But Lattimore did have an interception, and as Pro Football Focus would note a day later: he essentially "shut down" Jones with a CB rating of 64.6.

Image courtesy of Pro Football Focus

Lattimore intercepted Ryan but was called for two defensive holding calls, while Jones was called for one penalty, when he pushed off against the rookie. The Falcons eventually won by a score of 20-17, when linebacker and former LSU star Deion Jones intercepted a Drew Brees pass in the endzone that was intended for TE Josh Hill.

Just 3 weeks later in a key Week #16 rematch at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in NOLA between the two teams with major Playoff implications at stake, it was Jones who got the better stats — but who wasn't able to lead his team to victory.

Jones had 7 catches for 149 yards to lead the Falcons receiving attack, but it wasn't enough as the Saints clinched the 2017 NFC South Division Championship with a 23-13 win at the Superdome.

And it was Lattimore who came up with the game's most memorable play: when he made an incredible interception after Falcons back-up wide receiver Marvin Hall dropped the ball right onto Lattimore’s butt.

Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

It never touched the ground, so it was definitely a "live ball".

Lattimore was just trying to make the tackle and somehow managed to keep the ball balanced on his butt before finally completing the catch.

“I must be living right,” Lattimore said to reporters after the game.

Both teams would go on to lose in the Divisional Playoffs, with the Falcons losing in Philadelphia against the eventual World Champion Eagles; and obviously as Saints fans are well aware, New Orleans suffered a heart-breaking 29-24 loss at Minnesota against the Vikings in the game's final seconds.

Now several months later, both teams are once again expected to be top-rated Super Bowl contenders; but the Falcons' addition of Ridley changes the dynamic for both teams.

As noted by atlantafalcons.com Digital Managing Editor Matt Tabeek recently: the Dirty Birds in their recent Rookie Mini-camp, OTAs, and mandatory Mini-Camp, have been moving Ridley around quite a bit, both as a slot WR and lined up out wide; in an effort to diversify the talented rookie's role within the Falcons offensive scheme.

Photo courtesy of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Which for the Saints, likely means that either one (or both) Lattimore's two teammates — #2 CB Ken Crawley or slot CB Patrick Robinson — will be drawing the coverage assignment against University of Alabama head coach Nick Saban's prized pupil.

However, it should be noted that Atlanta can also additionally attack defenses with the excellent possession receiver Mohamed Sanu; and still have sure-handed #4 WR Justin Hardy; speedster Russell Gage, and the potentially solid former undrafted free agent Hall all at the disposal of "Matty Ice", albeit one defined by Julio.

That's assuming of course, that Julio actually shows up to play the games.

As Saints fans may (or may not) be aware: Julio has been holding out on the Falcons this off-season, in the hopes of getting a better deal.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

Jones’ current contract ties him to Atlanta three more years, but there’s no guaranteed money left remaining on his deal and at 29-years-old, this could be his last opportunity to maximize that.

But make no mistake about it: as a Saints fan, you more than likely can still expect to see Jones and his cast of WR characters twice, in the next few upcoming months ahead:

In Atlanta on September 23rd in Week #3; and then of course: what likely will be the "Game of the Year" for both teams, when they square off on Thanksgiving Night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on November 22nd.

It's a match-up between the two bitter rivals' biggest strengths, but one that clearly will be defined going forward by the budding one-on-one rivalry developing between Lattimore and Julio.

Selected 11th overall out of Ohio State, Lattimore didn’t allow a single touchdown all season — including in the Playoffs, according to the same folks at Pro Football Focus — and he allowed a passer rating of just 45.3 when targeted.

Photo courtesy of AJ Sisco, United Press Iternational

He had five interceptions and 18 passes defensed in his rookie season, that led to his very well-deserved Defensive Rookie of the Year award.

Which of course makes the much-anticipated re-match between himself and Juio against each other this coming season, all the more appealing for fans of the sport, especially those from the two fan-bases located in NOLA and in the "ATL"

“I wouldn’t say that it’s the only matchup that we talk about, but it’s a good one,” Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said to a collection of Atlanta beat writers just prior to their selection of Ridley in the draft.

“When you see guys battle at all spots, deep down as a coach, you really appreciate that,” Quinn said. “Some of them don’t show up on the stat sheet. Having those kind of moments as a player, those are a lot of fun".

"This (NFC South) division is loaded with match-ups. Linebackers on running backs. Corners and receivers like (Julio Jones). It’s always cool to see those. You always want to have your eye out for that. In this game, how are we going to deal with this player and make sure that he doesn’t affect the game in such a way that we don’t control over that.”

Photo courtesy of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

As noted the other day by NOLA.com / The Times-Picayune writer Josh Katzenstein: the Saints secondary improved significantly in 2017. As a team, the Saints made 20 interceptions last season, their most since grabbing 26 in 2009. The pass defense improved to 15th after ranking 32nd in 2016, 31st in 2015 and 25th in 2014. 

And Katzenstein adds: out of the Saints' 16 defensive backs, 12 of them are 24 years old or younger — potentially making the match-ups between the Saints CB's and the Atlanta WR's now with the addition of the former University of Alabama star Ridley thrown into the mix — one of the NFL's fiercest for the next several seasons ahead, starting with the one that's now just several weeks away.

Better get your popcorn ready, Saints fans.........

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Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist and Lead Analyst Barry Hirstius is a 50-year old semi-retired journalist and former New Orleans area sports editor and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints NFL football team. Additionally, he is a frequent guest on a variety of Sports Talk Radio programs that cover the Saints. Barry is also a New Orleans native that dating all the way back to his childhood in the early 1970's, attended games at the old Tulane Stadium and grew up as a long-time Saints fan; following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.......

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