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Falcons at Saints: Five things to watch

Game has major playoff implications

  1. The secondary changes that the New Orleans Saints implemented against Chicago – starting Terrence Frederick and Jamarca Sanfordat cornerback and safety, respectively, while deactivating cornerback Corey Whiteand shifting safety Kenny Vaccaro to the nickel – worked to near perfection against the Bears. Chicago was held to 194 passing yards and safety Pierre Warrengrabbed two of New Orleans' three interceptions. But the Saints will have to be even better against Atlanta, which, unlike Chicago, still is in contention for a division title and may have available its No. 1 receiver, Julio Jones(the Bears were eliminated from playoff contention and were missing receiver Brandon Marshall). Falcons quarterback Matt Ryanscorched the Saints in the season opener, throwing for a franchise-record 448 yards while completing 31 of 43 passes, with three touchdowns. There's no reason to think he won't challenge the Saints secondary again, even if Jones is unavailable. The Saints will get a chance to see if the adjustments were a temporary fix or, potentially, a long-term solution.
  1. The success of the secondary goes hand in hand with the pass rush. The Saints had their best game of the season in that category, posting seven sacks against the Bears, with linebacker David Hawthorne(three sacks) leading the way. The Saints only sacked Ryan once in the season opener, but they added in a few wrinkles for the blitz package in Chicago, and the tweaks proved to be a major success. Figure on defensive coordinator Rob Ryancreating a different defensive look for Ryan in Round 2, especially after his defensive unit was so ineffective in the opener. Making Ryan uncomfortable, and shortening his time to look for Jones (93 catches for 1,428 yards and six touchdowns), Roddy White(66-762-7), Harry Douglas(42-481-2) and Devin Hester(32-447-2) will be critical for the Saints. Look for the Saints' safeties to play a bit closer to the line of scrimmage than they did in the opener.
  1. It's not so much that Drew Breeshas been subpar in defeat this season; he has completed 68 percent of his passes for 307 yards per game, with 15 touchdowns and eight interceptions, in New Orleans' eight losses. It's that he has been spectacular in victory, completing 73 percent of his passes for 317 yards per game, with 16 touchdowns and four interceptions, in the six wins. In fact, Brees has five games this season without an interception, and four have been in victory. So the point is clear: When he plays clean – which, of course, includes getting the proper protection – then the Saints usually hum along on offense. In order for the Saints to end a four-game losing streak at home, Brees will need to be the QB he has been in victory.
  1. Punter Thomas Morsteadhas kicked off and punted to several elite returners this season. None have been better than Hester, the NFL's all-time leader in punt return touchdowns (14) and combined kick and punt return touchdowns (20). Hester enters Sunday with a 14.9-yard average and a touchdown on 16 punt returns, and 40 kickoff returns for a 24.3-yard average. He'll return anything that doesn't sail out of the end zone, so Morstead's deep kickoffs and directional punting again will be highlighted for the Saints on special teams.
  1. The left tackle position for the Saints bears watching on Sunday. Starter Terron Armsteadwas injured in Chicago and for the second consecutive game, he had to be relieved by Bryce Harris. The Falcons only have 16 sacks this season, so they haven't gotten to the quarterback nearly as much as they'd like. But depending on Armstead's availability and health, they may be more inclined to test the left side of the offensive line.
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