Atlanta native Dennis Allen brings Saints to town to play Falcons in opener

FLOWERY BRANCH — The Falcons get to find out where they stand in the NFC South from the outset of the season.

The Falcons, who are coming off a 7-10 campaign, will host the Saints, who finished in second place at 9-8, at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

For the first time since 2006, the Saints have a new coach after Dennis Allen replaced Sean Payton. The former coach was 21-9 against the Falcons.

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Allen, who was born in Atlanta, is the son of former Falcons linebacker Grady Allen (1968-72). He started his NFL coaching career with the Falcons as a defensive quality-control assistant for Dan Reeves in 2002.

Allen, who was the Raiders head coach from 2012-14, was with the Saints from 2006-10 and returned from 2015-21 as the defensive coordinator.

“We’re going to play a very veteran team coming in here,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “Schemes are very similar. Different coach. Obviously, Dennis has been there a long time.”

While neither team showed much in the exhibition games, the Falcons aren’t expecting any dramatic changes.

“He’ll still run the defense, but it will be different with him as a head coach,” Smith said. “Pete Carmichael takes over the offense, Sean’s not calling the plays. So, there’s unknown for them, too. They have a veteran team.”

Jameis Winston, who was re-signed to a modest two-year contract, is back to quarterback the Saints. He went 5-2 as a starter last season before suffering a season-ending knee injury. He completed 95 of 161 passes for 1,170 yards and 14 touchdowns, with only three interceptions.

On defense, the Saints added safeties Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye in free agency.

“They’ve added some other vets that I’m sure they’re anticipating to be productive for them,” Smith said.

Allen, who was 8-28 as a head coach with the Raiders, was handed a much better team this time around.

“He’ll have his own flavor,” Smith said. “He’s done a terrific job the last couple of years defensively. They know who they are.”

The Falcons have struggled against the Saints’ defensive front, which is led by defensive end Cam Jordan and middle linebacker Demario Davis.

“They got a terrific front, and they roll those guys in there,” Smith said. “I think they got one of the smartest middle linebackers in football. They’ve got pretty good corners. They invested a lot in the defensive backfield. They’ll look a little bit different at safety, but they’ll be sound. I know that.”

Falcons cornerback Casey Hayward, of Perry, played in the Bears-Packers rivalry. This will be his first Falcons-Saints game.

“I don’t really know much about it,” Hayward said. “I hear stories. But I’m excited. I know it’s a rivalry. I’ve been a part of some rivalries before. I know how that goes. I know the fans don’t like each other in the sense of football. It’s a big rivalry. I’m excited to play in it.”

Hayward does have a direct tie to the rivalry.

“My girl is actually from New Orleans,” Hayward said. “All of her family are Saints fans. She’s a Saints fan. Everybody is coming up for the game.”

Hayward is expecting a tough battle.

“It’s going to be a challenging game,” Hayward said. “They’ve got a good team. They’ve won a lot of games over these past few years with some good players. We have to come ready to play.”

Over his first four years in the league, right guard Chris Lindstrom has a full understanding of the rivalry.

“Fans are really passionate about it,” Lindstrom said. “The way (the Saints) go about playing ... they are a hard-nosed program. We’re just going to be ready to go. We’re going to really attack this week and just be the best prepared that we can be.”

Last season, the Falcons won the first meeting 27-25 in New Orleans to improve to 4-4. The Saints won the regular-season finale when Alvin Kamara rushed 30 times for 146 yards in a 30-20 win at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The Falcons lead the series 53-52 in regular-season games and 1-0 in playoff games.

The Falcons are hoping to play better than they did in last season’s opener, when they were bludgeoned 32-6 at home by the Eagles.

“We are just going to play with high energy,” Lindstrom said. “Really be assignment sound. That’s the thing we really tried to focus on. Everybody being on the same page, everybody being 100% on assignments. Really coming out and finishing all of our blocks. Get up, getting set and getting ready to go.”

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