Partly new and undoubtedly improved, the New Orleans Saints secondary will take a second swing at Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan and his productive trio of receivers Thursday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
This time, it'll be seeking more hits and fewer misses.
In the first game against Atlanta this season, a 43-37, overtime victory by the Saints on Sept. 23, Ryan and his receiving corps riddled New Orleans. He completed 26 of 35 passes for 374 yards and five touchdowns, without an interception; rookie receiver Calvin Ridley caught seven passes for 146 yards and three touchdowns; Julio Jones chipped in five catches for 96 yards; and Mohamed Sanu added four catches for 36 yards and a touchdown.
Also in the first game, the Saints were undergoing a lineup change – P.J. Williams replaced Ken Crawley in the starting lineup at left cornerback, then played poorly enough to be replaced by Crawley at halftime, then came back on the field to play the nickel when Patrick Robinson suffered a season-ending ankle injury.
"That was the beginning of the season and we were going through a lot," said cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who intercepted his first pass of the season in Sunday's victory over Philadelphia. "We tried to change P.J. and Crawley that game; we just had a lot going on that game. But now, we're more settled in and everybody knows their role, everybody knows what they've got to do. It's better for us."
Now, the Saints (9-1) have a nine-game winning streak, and all nine interceptions this season (and all 24 sacks) were produced during the run. Also, after allowing 342 passing yards per game and 10 touchdown passes in the first three games, with one interception, the Saints have trimmed those numbers to 256 yards per game and nine touchdowns in the last seven games, with eight picks.
One of the linchpins has been Williams, whose 45-yard interception return for a touchdown sparked the victory over Minnesota and who has showed marked improvement.
"Definitely feel like I'm playing a lot better, improving every week, making sure I'm understanding a lot more about the game and about our gameplan," Williams said.
"I feel like I've gotten better just overall, understanding the game plan, understanding the leverages I need to have, knowing where my help is and things like that. And overall (as a unit), I feel like we've improved. We're competing a lot better, we're not blowing many coverages, we're making sure we're knowing our assignment. I feel like when we're doing what we're supposed to do, we're a hard team to beat."
The addition of cornerback Eli Apple only has helped. Apple, acquired from the Giants in a trade Oct. 23, started at left cornerback against the Vikings on Oct. 28 and hasn't left the lineup.
In four games with Apple, the Saints have allowed 260 passing yards per game, with six touchdowns and seven interceptions. But in the last two, against Cincinnati and Philadelphia, they've allowed 156 yards per game and one touchdown, with five interceptions.
"I feel real comfortable," Apple said. "Still catching up to speed on some of the new stuff. Every week is always a new challenge, depending on the offense. So defensively, we don't want to always give the offense the same stuff. I've been getting acclimated well and the guys around here have been helping me a lot."
The result is a secondary that might be better equipped to deal with Jones (75 receptions for 1,158 yards and three touchdowns), Ridley (39-532-7) and Sanu (38-472-3).
"Gradually, I think we've gotten better in (the communication) area," Coach Sean Payton said. "When you play a team like this, and you have a guy like Ridley opposite of Julio and a guy like Sanu inside, it's one of the more dangerous offenses relative to a quarterback getting the ball down the field, receivers that can stretch the field. You have to be on point with your cloud player, sky player – there can be no gray area. So in a short week, we've got to get ready for that."
"They've got a lot of talent over there," Williams said. "They've got some of the best receivers this year. Julio has been doing it year in and year out, and Ridley has been having a great season as a rookie. And also, Sanu, he does a lot of good things for thing. With them having that quarterback behind them, it's an explosive offense. We're looking to hone in and do our job and keep them from going crazy."
Partly new and undoubtedly improved, the Saints are preparing for the challenge.
"We're getting a lot better, even with Eli being a new guy," Lattimore said. "He's coming in and understanding what's going on, so communication is really key and we're getting it done."