Offensively at least, the Atlanta Falcons (7-9) might as well walk into the Caesars Superdome flashing neon signs stating their intention Sunday for their regular-season finale against New Orleans (8-8).
Atlanta wants to run the ball on offense, largely because at an average of 130.1 rushing yards per game – eighth best in the league – the Falcons do it well. Possibly, they haven't run it better at any point this season than during a 24-15 victory over the Saints in Atlanta on Nov. 26, when the Falcons totaled 228 yards and a touchdown on 41 carries, a season high for yards and attempts against New Orleans' defense this season.
So, the Saints' defense knows that the primary job Sunday will be locking down in the run game, something it has managed to do in two of the last three games (60 yards on 16 carries by the Giants on Dec. 17, and 57 yards on 15 carries by Tampa Bay last Sunday).
"I think it starts up front," safety Tyrann Mathieu said. "If our (defensive line) can do what they did this past week, just challenge those guys in the run game. And then, two, I think we've got to do a better job of tackling in space.
"I think a lot of what they do offensively is, yeah, it's a downhill run game but they're trying to get their guys in space, force safeties and corners to make tackles. Obviously, the D-line needs to play well but I think all of us, collectively, we're all involved in trying to stop the run game."
The Saints rose to the physical challenge against Tampa Bay perhaps inspired by a physical, full-pads practice on Wednesday, four days prior to the game.
"Any time a coach challenges you – we were in pads last week, which is, I wouldn't say abnormal, but later in the season you kind of get away from padded practices – so it was kind of cool to put the pads back on and I think our guys handled it well," Mathieu said.
"That's what they want to do. As a team, as far as the scheme goes, they want to be able to run the football. I think we can kind of get distracted because they have a really good group of skills players, and you would expect them to push the ball down the field and take those chances.
"But I think everything for those guys starts with the run game, ends with the run game. Third down, you still have to defend the run. I mean, we know what these guys want to do. I think it's all about us showing up, especially defensively, and everybody being willing tacklers."
Saints Coach Dennis Allen agreed, and said the Falcons won the line of scrimmage in the prior meeting, leading to success in the run game. Falcons running backs Bijan Robinson (16 carries for 91 yards and a touchdown) and Tyler Allgeier (10 carries for 63 yards) were effective in November; Robinson also caught three passes for 32 yards and a touchdown.
"We're going to have to do a much better job up front of being able to control the line of scrimmage, both in the run game and the passing game," Allen said. "I told our team before this last game (against the Buccaneers), the best teams that I've been a part of are really led by both the offensive and the defensive fronts. So, for us to have success, we're going to have to play well up front on both sides of the ball and I thought we did that for the most part (Sunday)."