The New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons renew one of the NFL's most bitter rivalries this Sunday in the Superdome. New Orleans enters the contest with a 7-2 record and winners of their last six, most recently a 27-13 victory at home over the San Francisco 49ers last Sunday. The team's defense has played at an elite level in the previous two games and ranks 4th in the league in total yardage, allowing 308 yards per game and less than 300 in four of their last six outings.
Their defense and special teams have forced 13 turnovers this season, including 7 in the last two games. The Saints rank 22nd in 3rd down defense (44.6%), 29th in red-zone percentage (75%), and have allowed an average of 23.7 points per game, surrendering 24 or less in all four contests after their bye.
Atlanta is coming off a bye week and enters the game with a 3-6 record, but is 3-1 since replacing head coach Dan Quinn with Raheem Morris in October. The Falcons have one of the league's most explosive offenses. They rank 5th in total yardage with an average of 397 yards per game but an average of 27 points per outing. Atlanta has converted 43.4% of their 3rd down chances, ranking 12th in the league, but their 52.7% red zone percentage ranks just 27th. They've turned the ball over 8 times, including once in each of the last five games.
Here's how the New Orleans defense matches up against the offense of their rivals from Atlanta.
THE PASSING GAME
New Orleans ranks 15th in pass defense, allowing an average of 231 yards per game. Opposing quarterbacks have completed 65% of their throws against them, but they've solidified their play in the secondary in recent weeks after early-season struggles. The Saints have intercepted 9 passes this season but five in their last two victories against the Buccaneers and 49ers.
Cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Janoris Jenkins have played up to their Pro Bowl ability and locking down the opponent's top wideouts. Their backups, Patrick Robinson and P.J. Williams have made key plays at critical moments to fortify depth.
Safeties Marcus Williams and Malcolm Jenkins have also shown significant improvement in recent weeks after being the team's biggest weakness over the first month. Jenkins has an interception in both of the last two contests, has been a force around the line of scrimmage, and held up better in coverage duties.
Williams has two interceptions, tied with Robinson and Malcolm Jenkins for the team lead, and has displayed better anticipation in deep coverage. Second-year S Chauncey Gardner-Johnson was a defensive star against San Francisco and has been a stud as a blitzer or slot coverage.
Linebacker Demario Davis is equally effective as an extra pass rusher or covering tight ends and is the Saints' most fearsome defensive player. Recently acquired Kwon Alexander teams with Alex Anzalone to give the defense an athletic trio of linebackers who are all solid in coverage responsibilities.
All of the New Orleans linebackers are capable blitzers, but what makes their pass defense most effective is a deep and disruptive defensive line that can pressure opposing quarterbacks without being forced to blitz.
The Saints have 24 sacks and 59 QB hits this season, most of those from their defensive front. Veteran DE Cameron Jordan (2.5 sacks, 11 pressures) is again playing at a Pro Bowl level after a slow start. Fellow end Marcus Davenport has made offenses pay for not assigning a double-team to him and has 1.5 sacks and 10 pressures in just five games. Fourth-year vet Trey Hendrickson is having a breakout campaign and leads the team with 7.5 sacks and 19 pressures, putting him among the league leaders in both categories.
The Saints also bring heavy pressure from their defensive tackles, a deep unit despite an injury to Sheldon Rankins. Tackle David Onyemata is having a year worthy of All-Pro consideration with 3 sacks and 15 pressures. Even without Rankins, who should be off injured reserve in two weeks. Malcom Brown, Shy Tuttle, and Malcolm Roach have gotten nice interior pressure.
Atlanta has the league's 2nd ranked passing attack, averaging 310 yards per game. Veteran QB Matt Ryan is having another productive campaign statistically, completing 67.2% of his throws with 15 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. Ryan has a pair of Pro Bowl caliber wideouts at his disposal in Julio Jones (638 yards, 3 touchdowns) and Calvin Ridley (657 yards, 6 touchdowns) who have 43 receptions apiece. Quality receiver depth is provided by Russell Gage and Olamide Zaccheaus, who have a combined 53 catches for 632 yards. The Falcons don't use their running backs as receivers often, but have an athletic tight end in Hayden Hurst, who has 37 receptions for 411 yards and 3 scores.
Opposing defenses have sacked Ryan 19 times so far this season. That's an improvement over last year's pace, especially for a team with the fourth-most passing attempts in the league. Their offensive line has stayed relatively healthy, ranking in the middle of the league in pass protection efficiency for the team's downfield passing game.
THE RUNNING GAME
New Orleans owns the league's 2nd best run defense, allowing only 77 yards per game and 3.3 yards per carry. The Saints have dominated the line of scrimmage, blowing up blocking schemes with excellent penetration from their defensive tackles. Demario Davis leads a linebacker unit that terrorizes opposing backs, making crucial plays in the backfield and big stops sideline-to-sideline.
Safeties Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and Malcolm Jenkins are outstanding run defenders, allowing them to stalemate the rush even in nickel packages. The Saints have held 7 of their 9 opponents under 100 yards on the ground this season. They have not allowed an opposing rusher to gain over 100 yards against them since November 19, 2017, a span of 53 games, including playoffs.
Atlanta has the league's 18th ranked running game, averaging 99.7 yards per contest, but their 3.7 yards per carry ranks just 30th. Six-year veteran Todd Gurley may not have the explosiveness he once had, but leads the Falcons with 584 rushing yards and 9 touchdowns on 159 carries.
Brian Hill has limited some of Gurley's workload and has 243 rushing yards and a score. The Falcons offensive line has struggled to establish control of the line of scrimmage and open up running lanes for their backs, but has gotten good push near the goal line for Gurley.
Atlanta QB Matt Ryan has a 9-14 record against the Saints, but has 12 300-Yd passing games against them and has averaged 298 yards per game with 43 touchdown passes and 16 interceptions. All-Pro WR Julio Jones has averaged 9 receptions for 92 yards in 16 career games against New Orleans, recording six 100-Yd games but scoring only three times. Fellow wideout Calvin Ridley has also had some big outputs against the Saints in his brief career, catching at least 7 passes for 90+ yards in three of his four appearances against them.
On paper, it wouldn't appear that the Falcons would have success against the Saints with their running game, but they picked up 143 yards on the ground in a 26-9 upset of New Orleans last November in the Superdome. With the talent that the Falcons have at receiver, the Saints must hold up in coverage, but even more crucial that they pressure Ryan with their defensive front.
Defensive end Cam Jordan has feasted against Atlanta pass protection, recording 18 sacks and 33 QB hits in 18 games against them, including four takedowns of Ryan in a game last season.
With QB Drew Brees sitting out because of a severe rib injury, questions surround the New Orleans offense as they enter this divisional showdown. It may be on the shoulders of a Saints defense playing at an elite level to come out of this rivalry game with a critical win.