The 9-2 New Orleans Saints come into this Sunday's rematch with the Atlanta Falcons with the league's top ranked defense in overall yardage. New Orleans has allowed 285 yards per game this season and 20.5 points per contest, fifth lowest in the NFL. The Saints have been on a defensive roll for the last four games, when they've allowed a mere one touchdown and only 28 points while surrendering an average of 208 yards per game.
New Orleans has risen in the defensive rankings because of a pass defense that has greatly improved since the beginning of the year, but the Saints have been one of the league's best run defenses over the last three seasons. Their rush defense ranks 2nd so far this year, giving up only 76 yards per contest and 3.3 per carry. The Saints have held 7 of their 11 opponents under 100 yards on the ground. Including playoffs, they have not allowed a 100-Yd rusher in 54 consecutive games, equaling a modern-era NFL record by the 1989-92 Philadelphia Eagles.
New Orleans will travel to face a 4-7 Atlanta team that ranks 10th in total offense, scoring 26.8 points and 375 yards per game. The Falcons are coming off a 43-6 home victory over the Las Vegas Raiders last week, but did not score a touchdown in a 24-9 loss at New Orleans two weeks ago.
Atlanta is best-known for a productive big-play passing attack, and their rush offense averages 104 yards per game, 23rd in the league. Only two teams average less than their 3.7 average yards per carry and have been held under 100 yards rushing in six outings this season. That includes a season-low 52 yards rushing against the Saints two weeks ago.
The Falcons are led on the ground by 26-Yr old running back Todd Gurley, who has 610 yards rushing and 9 of the team’s 12 rushing scores. Gurley has one 100-Yd game this year, but is averaging only 3.7 yards per carry. He missed last game with a knee injury that has him questionable for this week. If Gurley can't go, the bulk of the running back snaps will go to four-year veteran Brian Hill, who has 316 rushing yards and a touchdown this year. Ito Smith, who has 111 yards and a score, will also see action.
New Orleans has dominated opponents in the trenches, allowing them to stifle the run. That dominance starts with a deep crew of defensive tackles, allowing them to rotate talent and stay fresh late in games. The Saints have 63 tackles for loss this season because they get decisive penetration into the backfield. Defensive tackle David Onyemata is the star of the group and has a career-high 8 tackles for loss this year.
Malcom Brown is one of the league's better interior run defenders and had a terrific outing against the Broncos last week. Star DT Sheldon Rankins could be back in the lineup after being activated from injured reserve last week. Rankins is an underrated run defender, but without him the defense flexed the strength of its depth with second-year DT Shy Tuttle and undrafted rookie Malcolm Roach.
The Saints defensive ends have proven to be more than disruptive pass rushers. Cam Jordan, Trey Hendrickson, Marcus Davenport, and Carl Granderson have been terrific at holding the edge against outside runs and making plays in the backfield. All four will chase down a runner along the line of scrimmage. The entire defensive line is as athletic as any in the NFL, routinely cutting down opposing ball carriers before they can turn the corner outside.
The ability of this defensive line would make any linebacker's job easier, but these Saints linebackers have been superb in 2020. Demario Davis is having another All-Pro campaign and is possibly the NFL's most complete defensive player. Davis has elite play recognition and the athleticism to make plays from sideline-to-sideline and opposing backfields. He leads the team in total tackles, solo stops, and has 8 tackles for loss. Kwon Alexander is playing better with each week after joining the team via trade from San Francisco last month.
Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen runs several alignments with only two linebackers, knowing Davis and Alexander have the athleticism necessary to cover ground. Linebacker Alex Anzalone has had snaps reduced since Alexander joined the team, but has proven to be a capable player and athlete alongside Davis.
The Saints run so many two linebacker sets to get second-year defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson on the field as much as possible. Gardner-Johnson is third on the team in tackles, four for loss, and has been a force around the line of scrimmage. He teams with veteran S Malcolm Jenkins to give the defense two more skilled run defenders in the tackle box.
The Falcons ran for 143 yards in an upset of the Saints in New Orleans last season, but have otherwise failed to reach 100 yards rushing in each of the previous five meetings with the Saints. They had 52 yards on the ground at New Orleans two weeks ago, including 26 from Gurley on eight attempts. Atlanta's best chance of beating the Saints lies with QB Matt Ryan and his plethora of receiving weapons, but the Falcons must establish a ground game to maintain a balance against the aggressive and confident New Orleans defense.
The Saints have sacked Ryan 17 times in the last two meetings between these teams, including 8 takedowns two weeks ago. New Orleans will again have to squash the Atlanta rushing attack to make them one-dimensional, so they can unleash their pass rush on Ryan.