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Five things to watch in today's New Orleans Saints-Atlanta Falcons game

Game marks the return of Sean Payton to the Saints sideline

  1. 'BACKERS ARE BACK. Outside linebackers Junior Galette and Martez Wilson are expected to make their 2013 debuts in the season opener. Both are converted defensive ends, and are expected to impact as pass rushers in the New Orleans Saints' 3-4 defense. But neither, because of injury, played a down in preseason. How soon they can knock off the rust and get into game shape may determine how effective they can be. But given that the Saints only have three outside linebackers (Parys Haralson is the other), Galette and Wilson will figure prominently in what the Saints do defensively.
  1. WIN, ON THREE. Third-down success will make life a lot easier on the Saints, and the numbers suggest as much. Last season, when the team finished 7-9, it converted 44 percent of the time on third down. Two years ago, when New Orleans was 13-3, it was successful a whopping 56.7 percent of the time on third down. Converting third downs keeps the defense off the field and fresh, it helps tilt field position, and it leads to points. It's a win-win-win situation when the Saints win on third down.
  1. COVER IT UP. Last year, opponents owned a 12.6-yard average on punt returns and a 25-yard average on kickoff returns. New Orleans needs and expects better execution from its punt and kick coverage teams, even though those units no longer will include receiver Courtney Roby, the special teams captain who was released on the final preseason cut. The units may be a little younger but, hopefully, a tad faster and more athletic. Just as much, they must remain disciplined in their assignments against Falcons punt returner Harry Douglas and kickoff returner Jacquizz Rodgers.
  1. TIS BETTER TO RECEIVE. Today, we'll get the first regular-season game look of the young receivers, second-year man Nick Toon and rookie Kenny Stills. Toon was injured last year so both never have played in a regular-season game. They played to rave reviews in preseason and the game doesn't look too big for them but just in case either comes down with a case of jitters, New Orleans signed ex-Saint Robert Meachem this week. Coach Sean Payton said Meachem still has his speed and Meachem has retained much of his knowledge of the playbook, so he could slide in as the No. 3 receiver if the youngsters show any hint of unsteadiness. But so far, it's hard to not like what we've seen of them.
  1. DEFEND THIS HOUSE. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's unit will walk onto the field with a swagger and an intent to pressure Atlanta's offense, particularly quarterback Matt Ryan. The thought process is to limit big plays; if opponents are to score, force them to drive 80-plus yards in 10-plus plays. If they do so successfully, make 'em do it again. The theory is that it will be difficult for any offense to construct multiple drives of 80 yards and 10 plays, and that the odds are the defense will produce a stop or force a turnover. But this defensive unit intends to force the action, too, rather than wait and react. Keep a close eye on defensive end Cam Jordan, who couldn't be blocked in preseason and appears poised for a breakout year.
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