New Orleans Saints players insist their approach and attitude hasn't changed despite a 4-9 record and microscopic postseason chances, because there only is one way to play NFL games – all out, full speed, with the intent to win.
New Orleans has lost two straight, and four of five, entering Sunday's game against Atlanta (5-8) in the Caesars Superdome. If the Saints are going to post a season sweep over their NFC South Division rivals, here are a few boxes that need to be checked.
1. RATTLE THE ROOK: Atlanta quarterback Desmond Ridder will be making his regular-season debut Sunday, and while the rookie was impressive during preseason (34 of 56 passing for 431 yards and three touchdowns, with two interceptions, and eight carries for 58 yards), that's not comparable to what the Saints should show him defensively on Sunday. Coach Dennis Allen and co-defensive coordinators Ryan Nielsen and Kris Richard need packages that'll confuse the youngster, and make him hold on to the ball a little longer than he prefers. New Orleans will want to keep him in the pocket and force him to be effective from there. The Saints feel their cornerbacks can hold up in coverage, so they may feel comfortable pressuring Ridder with some blitzing.
2. CHOKE OFF THE RUN: Keeping Ridder surrounded may be easier said than done. He's a mobile quarterback and in the season opener, Atlanta ran for a whopping 201 yards and two touchdowns on 38 carries in part because New Orleans was a bit indecisive in terms of how it wanted to attack the mobile quarterback, Marcus Mariota, that day. If the Saints feel good about the cornerback situation – and they should – then more bodies can be devoted to the run game and Ridder. New Orleans' stellar linebacker play needs to continue – Demario Davis, Kaden Elliss and Pete Werner, who appears ready to return after missing four games, have had standout seasons – because Atlanta will test a run defense that has seen seven opponents run for at least 137 yards.
3. FOLLOW THROUGH: Running back Alvin Kamara needs the ball in his hands or, at least, he needs to be on the field so that Atlanta might believe he's going to get the ball in his hands. Kamara is New Orleans' best, most accomplished, most versatile offensive player, but the four-game stretch this season of his heaviest use (99 touches) came in October. True, Kamara hasn't helped the cause with four lost fumbles this season. But he has been as reliable as they come in his career, and his latest five-game stretch – 65 total touches – isn't nearly enough usage for a player of his talents.
4. HOLD ON: It pretty much goes without saying that offensively, the Saints need to hold on to the ball. When you're minus-12 in turnover margin, nothing speaks more definitively to a 4-9 record than that. If you hold on to the ball, at least there's a realistic chance but if the turnover margin is minus-2 or more in the game, it could be a long day.
5. REAL McCOY: With center Erik McCoy back in the lineup for the first time since Nov. 7, the Saints' offensive line should be at its healthiest in quite some time. It'll need to be at its best, in order to deal with Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett (5.5 sacks, 13 quarterback hits, 10 tackles for loss). Jarrett can be a one-man offense wrecker; New Orleans' interior has to keep him under control.