The New Orleans Saints defense isn’t focused on 1-7.
Yes, that’s Atlanta’s record entering Sunday’s game against the Saints (7-1) in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and, yes, the Falcons are on a six-game losing streak while New Orleans is on a six-game winning streak.
But, too, there’s this fact: Atlanta’s offense leads the NFL with 316.8 passing yards per game. And the Falcons are one of just three teams with two 50-catch receivers: tight end Austin Hooper (52, for 591 yards and five touchdowns) and receiver Julio Jones (50, for 712 yards and four touchdowns). And quarterback Matt Ryan, who missed the last game with an ankle injury, is expected to be back in the lineup Sunday.
Add in the fact that it’s an NFC South Division game, and the Saints’ defense believes it has every reason to look past 1-7.
“Sometimes a record doesn’t tell the whole story,” defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said. “They’re a talented group. We’ll start at the top. Matt Ryan is a perennial Pro Bowler. When it’s all said and done, his stats will go down as some of the best. They’ve got great skill position players all over the place.
“This isn’t a group that we’re going to take lightly, this isn’t a group we’re going to go in here and look at 1-7 and say, ‘They’re not going to show up, they’re not going to come here to play.’ On any given Sunday, a team can come in here and get a win.
“For us, it’s business as usual. We’re going about business like we always have. Going in there trying to stop the run, trying to control them as far as passing game goes, get after the quarterback and get the ball back for (Saints quarterback) Drew (Brees)."
Stopping the run has become the Saints’ calling card defensively.
New Orleans hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in since Samaje Perine ran for 117, with Washington, on Nov. 19, 2017. The streak has reached 34 games, including playoffs, and after allowing 80.2 rushing yards per game last year (second-fewest in the league), the Saints are back at it again. Opponents have totaled 84.3 rushing yards per game this season, 63.3 during the six-game winning streak.
The Falcons have a running back, Devonta Freeman, who has been troublesome for New Orleans in the past. And Atlanta has shifted a bit philosophically on offense, with a coordinator change; from Steve Sarkisian last year to Dirk Koetter this season.
“I would say there are a few differences,” Saints Coach Sean Payton said. “They’ve always been a wide-zone team, it’s still part of what they do. (But) there’s been a coordinator change, they’re explosive.
“They’re very talented at the receiver, running back and tight end position. Matt Ryan, who’s been there – they can score fast, their third-down numbers are good. There’s a handful of things I’m sure as a team they want to be better at.
“But you do see it. You see their weapons on offense and their ability to score quickly. They’re good when they have to convert long-yardage situations, they’re good in short-yardage situations. So you’re familiar with the personnel. Yes, the scheme is similar, and yet there are a few things that maybe are different.”
The differences are infused with much of the same personnel, and that’s reason enough for the Saints to not notice the record, and to focus on the other numbers.
“I know (receiver) Mo Sanu went over to the Pats (in a trade), (but they have) Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones,” defensive end Cam Jordan said. “You’ve got (quarterback) Matt Ryan, who’s putting up amazing numbers this year. (Running back) Devonta Freeman is healthy. That makes them dangerous, by far.
“Plus it’s an in-season rivalry game, and all of your NFC South games are a battle. When you play somebody twice a year, you know year in and year out what they’re going to bring to the table. It’s going to be up to us to make them one-dimensional if possible.
“Ain’t no don’t eat the cheese. At the end of the day, they have extremely talented players.”