Falcons try to slow Saints’ roll to fourth consecutive NFC South title

Credit: AJC

Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones discusses playing against the Saints and his respect for cornerback Marshon Lattimore.

Credit: AJC

The Falcons will attempt to slow New Orleans’ march to their fourth consecutive NFC South title when they meet at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Falcons (3-6) won’t have to contend with the normally rambunctious Saints fans.

The Saints (7-2), under coach Sean Payton since 2006, have won seven division titles since the NFC South was formed in 2002. They are going for an unprecedented fourth consecutive divisional title this season, but will play without starting quarterback Drew Brees, who has five broken ribs and a collapsed lung.

Former Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston and change-of-pace quarterback Taysom Hill will take over for Brees, with Hill reported to be the one who will start.

While Payton and Brees have controlled the NFC South, the Panthers, who have five NFC South titles, won three in a row from 2013-15. The Falcons have four NFC South titles, and Tampa Bay has three.

Only Tampa Bay (Super Bowl XXXVIII) and the New Orleans (Super Bowl XLIV) have won the Super Bowl out of the NFC South. Carolina lost Super Bowl XXXVII and Super Bowl 50, while the Falcons lost Super Bowl 51.

Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris is no stranger to the NFC South. He was with Tampa Bay as an assistant coach (2007-08) and as their head coach (2009-11).

He went to the NFC East with Washington (2012-14) before returning to the NFC South with the Falcons in 2015.

While head coach at Tampa Bay, Morris was 3-3 against Payton and the Saints.

“You’re going against a very well-coached Sean Payton offense, with (offensive coordinator) Pete Carmichael,” Morris said. “Those two guys have done a great job of putting together game plans for whoever they’re going to play. We saw them do it last year with Teddy Bridgewater, and now they will be challenged with the same thing again this year.”

Normally, folks catch up to a team’s concepts in the NFL. But that hasn’t been the case with the Saints under Payton, Carmichael and Brees.

“They do an excellent job at featuring players,” Falcons defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said. “At first it was Reggie Bush, that it was (Travaris) Cadet and now it’s (Alvin) Kamara. ... They’ve built the roster in such a specific way that they know exactly how to feature these guys and what they do best. … They keep finding ways to attack defenses.”

Ulbrich forgot to mention Darren Sproles, who played for the Saints from 2011-14.

Here’s the breakdown of how Morris’ Bucs fared against Payton and the Saints.

In 2009, Morris’ 3-13 team loss to the Saints 38-7 on Nov. 22 and beat them 20-17 in overtime Dec. 27.

In the 2010 season, the Bucs went 10-6 and lost to the Saints 31-6 on Oct. 17 and beat them 23-13 on Jan. 2, 2011.

Finally, in the 2011 season, the Bucs beat the Saints 26-20 on Oct. 16 and then lost 27-16 on Nov. 6, 2011.

Payton and Brees have been together in New Orleans since 2006, except for the “Bountygate” suspension year of 2012, when Payton missed the entire season. While Brees is injured, the Falcons are still very concerned about the Saints, regardless of who plays quarterback.

“We know they’re going to come ready to play,” Morris said.

Morris has experience trying to defend the Saints. He moved over to the defense last season after the bye week, and the defense came up big in the next game, a 26-9 victory over the Saints.

The Falcons, who’ve had trouble sacking Brees, sacked him six times in that victory last season. It was the most times the Falcons had sacked Brees over 29 games.

“The one thing with Sean, he does a phenomenal job of giving people roles on their offense,” Morris said. “We’ve seen all the way back from Reggie Bush now to Kamara, from Drew Brees to Teddy Bridgewater, and from Marques Colston to Michael Thomas, so we’ve seen those guys give people roles that they can succeed in.”

The Falcons won NFC South titles in 2004, 2010, 2012 and 2016 under three different coaches. Payton has all seven of the Saints’ titles.

“He’s done a great job over the last whatever amount of years he’s been the head coach down in New Orleans. It feels like forever,” Morris said. “They just do a great job of putting those people in those roles and giving those guys things they can do.”

Morris hopes the Falcons made good use of the bye week to get prepared for Payton and the Saints.

Hill chiefly is a running quarterback, who also has lined up at tight end, wide receiver and running back, so keeping track of him will be a concern.

“He’s got a better arm than you want him to have,” Ulbrich said. “For a guy that runs as well as he does, he’s an extremely talented runner. He’s very running back-like when he’s got the ball in his hands.

“Then when he drops back, he throws it better than you would like him to.”

The team also spent time this week preparing to face Winston.

“Jamies is an extremely talented thrower, and he’s a guy that’s very aggressive,” Ulbrich said. “He takes the ball down the field, he does some things that maybe Brees doesn’t always do. So, we definitely have to got to be prepared for that.”

This will be the 102nd regular-season meeting. The Falcons lead the series 52-49.

“It’s always been a fun matchup,” Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones said. “Obviously, with the Saints and Falcons it’s a rivalry game. Blood is boiling. It’s gets chippy at times and things like that. That’s what you are going to get in this game.”

One of the keys to the Falcons’ success under Morris (3-1 record) has been the ability to keep the defense off the field.

After the 0-5 start under former coach Dan Quinn, the Falcons’ time of possession was 29 minutes, 07 seconds.

Under Morris, the Falcons’ average of 35:12 leads the NFL. In that span. The Falcons have improved from 21st in the league to fourth with an overall average of 31:50.

“I think while we’ve been explosive. We’ve also done a nice job of hammering out those 10-, 12-, 14-play drives that just eat up the clock,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “To me, that comes from – I’m not sure our rushing statistics have been mind-blowing – we’ve been efficient enough when we’ve needed to be in the run game.”

The Falcons have the 18th-ranked run offense (106.8 yards per game) going against the Saints’ second-ranked run defense (76.8 yards per game).

“It opens up our play-action pass,” Ryan said. “It allows us to get outside the pocket, so when we’re efficient with what we’re doing running the football, that allows for better time of possession and certainly allows for us to stay on the field a little more.”

Falcons’ next four games

Falcons at Saints at 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 22

Raiders at Falcons at 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 29

Saints at Falcons at 1 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 6

Falcons at Chargers at 4:25 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 13

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