Five things to watch against the Saints
1. The Saints' run game: Don't get caught up in the dazzling passing statistics of quarterback Drew Brees. If you do, you'll miss the fact that the Saints have powered up in the run department.
The combination of Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell are helping the Saints average 154.5 rushing yards per game (sixth in the league).
"It makes them more than one dimensional," Falcons defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux said. "We have to be ready for a good physical game."
Don't forget about Reggie Bush, who is the Saints' third-leading rusher.
"We have a great challenge in front of us, but we are not backing down," linebacker Mike Peterson said.
2. Maybe Tye Hill in the secondary: Falcons coach Mike Smith is not putting the blame on the secondary for the past two quarterbacks the Falcons have faced each throwing for 300 or more yards.
"Everybody can do more," cornerback Chris Houston said. "You are always looking to do more and evaluate yourself to see what more you can do."
The Saints are extremely deep at wide receiver with Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Lance Moore and Robert Meachem.
"Brees spreads the love all around the field," Falcons safety Erik Coleman said. "He turns guys into stars."
It might be time to get Tye Hill out on the field and see if he can do a better job than Brent Grimes. The Falcons acquired Hill, a first-round pick in 2006, from St. Louis on Sept. 1 for a seventh-round pick.
"It's going to be a coaches' decision," Hill said. "Since I've been here, I've been preparing to play. I am getting more reps, and that's good for me because I really need them."
Grimes has struggled tackling big receivers. He's in the photo frame on plays, but couldn't bring down San Francisco's Josh Morgan a couple of weeks back and let Dallas' Miles Austin shake him last week.
Tackling after the catch will be key against the Saints.
"I definitely want to add the spark to this team if I get a chance to play," Hill said.
3. The Falcons' first-down runs: Former Ohio State coach Woody Hayes and his "three yards and a cloud of dust" theory would probably be OK with the Falcons' rushing attack on first down.
They have 98 first-down rushes for 307 yards (3.1 per carry). The Falcons have been stuffed (no gain or losses) 13 times on first down.
The Falcons need to get more out of their first-down running plays in order to avoid so many second-and-long situations.
The Falcons might continue to struggle with the run because Ovie Mughelli (calf), Jerious Norwood (hip) and Jason Snelling (hamstring) are all injured. Mughelli has the best chance to play against the Saints. Recently signed Aaron Stecker could see some action against his former team.
The Saints have not allowed a 100-yard rushing game and rank eighth in the NFL in fewest yards allowed per game (92.3).
4. Unleash the "Sack Attack": The Falcons have 12 sacks, and four of them have come from blitzers.
The Dolphins sacked Brees five times last week. He had been sacked only four times in the previous five games.
"I think he was late making his reads because they were playing good coverage on the back end," Babineaux said. "That's how they got most of their sacks."
Well, the Falcons probably can't sustain man-to-man coverage on the Saints for long, so the front four might have to get after Brees, with everybody else dropping into zone coverage.
"We have to stop the run first and then get after him," Babineaux said. "If it's a three-step drop, all we can do is get our hands up to block the ball. But other than that we have to continue to get after this guy every time that goes back to pass."
5. Stay away from Darren Sharper: When dropping back to pass, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan will have one priority.
He'll have to locate Saints safety Darren Sharper and then throw to the other side of the field. The ball-hawking Sharper has six interceptions and has returned three for touchdowns
"There's a saying, sometimes, guys, the football just finds them," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "He's a player that I think is like that."
With Sharper playing centerfield over the top, new Saints defensive coordinator Greg Williams has been dialing up an assortment of blitzes to get the ball out quicker.
"Veteran player that has always been a play-maker," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "He's very dangerous when he gets the ball in his hands. He makes some really good moves when he gets the ball and turns into a runner."
Three key matchups
Falcons DE John Abraham vs. Saints LT Jermon Bushrod:. Bushrod, a fourth-round pick in 2007, moved into the lineup following an injury to Jammal Brown. Abraham has a foot injury and has gone two games with a sack. The Falcons are hoping Abraham can win this matchup and get some sacks so that they will not have to try to fabricate a pass rush with blitzes. Bushrod struggled some against Miami last week before settling down.
Saints RB/WR Reggie Bush vs. Falcons WLB Mike Peterson: Last season, Michael Boley wrote his ticket out of town when he detected a screen to Bush but didn't make the play on the ball. Coy Wire was in the lineup the next week. Peterson stays in on nickel situations and could find himself matched up against Bush. Bush, this week's Sports Illustrated coverboy, has three rushing touchdowns.
Saints WR Marques Colston vs. Falcons CBs Chris Houston, Brent Grimes or Tye Hill: The 6-foot-4 Colston will tower over all of the Falcons' cornerbacks. He is the Saints' leading receiver with 30 receptions for 466 yards and five touchdowns. The Falcons struggled against bigger receivers and could be in for a long day when Colston shows up on their side of the field.
The Falcons will win if ...
1. They don't eat the cheese: Quarterback Matt Ryan can't eat the cheese. Saints veteran safety Darren Sharper is going to try to bait him into throws. Sharper is savvy enough to throw out a false read for Ryan and get back into position for an interception. He learned from one of the best, Leroy Butler, when he broke into the league out of William and Mary. Also, Ryan and center Todd McClure will have to recognize the Saints' blitz packages and get into the right protections.
2. They can bat down passes: In last season's first matchup, nine Falcons batted down at least one of Drew Brees' passes, and he was intercepted three times. Nickel back Chevis Jackson had a 95-yard interception return for a touchdown. The Falcons held Brees to his lowest completion percentage of the season (53.4). They'll need a similar effort in the Superdome. Free safety Thomas DeCoud leads the team with six passes defensed. Linebacker Mike Peterson (four) and cornerback Brent Grimes (three) are second and third on the team in passes defensed.
3. Steal some of Brees' weapons: Now that he has a running game, Saints quarterback Drew Brees has an assortment of weapons. With Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell running the ball, the passing attack is even more dangerous. Brees has several targets in the passing game, including receivers Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem, running back Reggie Bush and tight end Jeremy Shockey. The Falcons have to take away some of these weapons.
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com