Improved Falcons defense faces tougher test in Saints

Falcons' defense has allowed 24.9 points per game through Week 15.

Combined ShapeCaption
Falcons' defense has allowed 24.9 points per game through Week 15.

The Falcons have improved on defense, but it’s been a long time since they played an opponent that can score like the Saints. In fact, since playing the Packers on Oct. 30, the Falcons have faced a series of bad-to-mediocre offensive teams.

That’s not the way Falcons safety Ricardo Allen sees it, though. He pointed to some of his teammates in the locker room, members of the No. 1 offense in the NFL, and said the defense sees the best competition in practice.

“We go against the best offense in the league every week, so I think we are ready,” Allen said. “When you talk about weapons, we probably have the most as a team here. So when we go against other team, we go against some pretty good match ups (in practice) so I think we fare pretty well.”

Statistically, the Falcons still rank low in several defensive categories. But there’s little question that the Falcons have improved since the Packers scored 32 points while gaining 5.5 yards per play, including five plays of 20 yards or more.

The Falcons held the Buccaneers to 14 points before easing off once the score got lopsided. The Falcons held the Eagles to 24 points in spite of disadvantageous field position for much of the game.

The Cardinals managed to score just 19 points against the Falcons. Kansas City’s offense scored just 13 points, including none in the second half. The Rams, 49ers and Panthers averaged just 14.3 points against the Falcons.

But only one of those six opponents, the Chiefs, ranks better than average in the Football Outsiders offensive-efficiency metric that accounts for opponent and game situation. The Chiefs rank No. 13 and the Bucs No. 16, and the other four teams all rank 20th or worse.

Now the Falcons face the Saints, who have the fifth-best offense in the league according to Football Outsiders. The Saints can throw it (No. 6 rushing), they can run it (No.5 passing) and they can score (third in points per drive).

Quarterback Drew Brees is in command of a system that he and coach Sean Payton have been using since 2006.

“They’ve got a huge playbook,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “Our communication had better be right to allow us to play at max speed.”

Like Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, Brees spreads the ball around to an assortment of capable targets. An NFL-record 13 Falcons players have touchdown passes, and seven players have at least 250 yards receiving. Ten Saints players have caught TD passes and seven have at least 250 yards receiving.

If the recent defensive improvement by the Falcons mostly is a function of weaker opponents, the Saints are likely to reveal it.

“What makes them so hard to defend is that everybody’s live,” Quinn said. “What makes all of them so good is the power of the group. This route may come open for this guy, and this (route) for this guy. They all have unique roles. Big guys and fast guys. Guys who can go in the slot. How they feature the tight end, in-line or split them out. Running backs in the backfield or out (wide).

“They are a handful. It’s a challenge that we are pumped about. We feel like we are a better version of (ourselves).”

Turnovers are the one major area of weakness for the Saints. They rank 22nd in turnovers lost per drive, according to Football Outsiders. The Falcons have forced 10 of their 21 turnovers for the season over the past five weeks and could have opportunities for more Sunday.

But even with their recent defensive improvement, the Falcons still rank 25th in points allowed per game, 17th in yards allowed per play and last in red-zone scoring percentage. The Football Outsiders metric that puts more weight on recent performance ranks the Falcons just 23rd in the league.

“I think you can get jammed up if you look at just the stats defensively, and I know I for sure have,” Quinn said. “But there is a bigger story there in terms of the style and attitude, and the ball-hawking, the tackling that goes into it. All along we’ve kept kind of pressing on the message that we are going to get there. We’ve got to keep our eyes on how good we can get (while) in the process of getting better.”