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John DeShazier: Sean Payton expects Saints defense to be 'challenged' Sunday by potent Falcons

Payton: 'This group is extremely talented and they’ve got a quarterback who was the MVP of the league last year'

It wasn't a bubble-burst so much as it was a precaution that was submitted by New Orleans Saints Coach Sean Payton.

Namely, that what the Saints (10-4) accomplished in the secondary and as a pass defense in Sunday's 31-19 victory over the Jets, was against an offensive unit that isn't nearly as accomplished nor as potent as the one New Orleans will face Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The Jets were held to 170 net passing yards. Quarterback Bryce Petty completed 19 of 39 passes and threw two interceptions, to counter his one touchdown.

"We've played some real good games and yet, we're going to get challenged this week," Payton said. "We're not playing that same type of receiving corps that we've seen in a few of these other games.

"This group is extremely talented and they've got a quarterback who was the MVP of the league last year. So it's a different bunch and I would say a much bigger challenge."

"This" group is Atlanta (9-5), led by receiver Julio Jones (76 catches for 1,215 yards and three touchdowns), and last season's MVP is Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (292 of 448 for 3,490 yards and 18 touchdowns, with 11 interceptions).

But, despite the "this" and the MVP, the Saints have reason to be confident in their ability to slow down Atlanta. Because they already have done it once this season.

In the teams' first game, on Dec. 7 in Atlanta, the Falcons posted a 20-17 victory. But Ryan completed just 15 of 27 passes for 221 yards and a touchdown, and was intercepted on three consecutive possessions (by cornerback Marshon Lattimore and safeties Chris Banjo and Marcus Williams). Jones caught five passes for 98 yards, but Lattimore held up well in his first game back after a two-game absence due to an ankle injury (his interception, just before halftime, came in a one-on-one matchup with Jones).

"They competed well," Payton said of the secondary. "I thought overall we did a good job. (Jones is) tough to contain throughout the course of a whole game and yet, (Lattimore) battled and came up with some big plays for us. The turnover at the half was significant."

The coverage caught the eye of Jones, who will have Lattimore as a teammate on the NFC Pro Bowl team.

"He travels (with top wide receivers)," Jones said. "That's what I love about him."

It's a mutual respect that was earned in the first encounter.

"It's my job to cover him and make sure he's not the reason that they win. That's my job," said Lattimore, who leads the Saints with four interceptions. "(But) he's a great receiver. One of the best."

New Orleans, undoubtedly, will need its best against the Falcons. Even though Atlanta's passing game has been in somewhat of a funk the last three games – during that stretch, Ryan has completed 48 of 87 passes (55.2 percent) for 606 yards (202 per game) and two touchdowns, with three interceptions (all against the Saints) – its production is well-documented.

But because of what the Saints have been able to do this season, they remain confident. New Orleans is allowing 213.4 passing yards per game – seventh fewest in the league – and has 16 interceptions vs. 20 touchdowns allowed. Last year, the Saints allowed 273.8 passing yards per game, most in the league, and had just nine interceptions to counter 27 touchdown passes.

"I feel we have confidence every game," Williams said. "We go in with the same mentality, that we're going to dominate the other team. That's what we try to do every week, just those little things that we preach in our film room and on the field, just to make sure that we come out and execute."

This time, it'll be another high-stakes game against an NFC South Division opponent.

"We got a little feel for what they like to do, what their receivers like to do," said second-year cornerback Ken Crawley. "And I actually played them last year, so I kind of know how their receivers like to attack you. We've got a good feel for them, we've just got to go out there and play."

More game action photos from the Saints-Falcons matchup.

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