If the New Orleans Saints learned one thing from the 2019 season, it was that the team could function – well – without quarterback Drew Brees.
Undoubtedly, the ride is smoothest with Brees driving, which he has for the overwhelming majority of the time since joining New Orleans as an unrestricted free agent in 2006. But the Saints showed they were able to operate without Brees during a five-game stretch last year, a period in which the Saints went undefeated.
That seems to be a good reference point for the Saints (7-2) entering Sunday's game against Atlanta (3-6) in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Because for the second consecutive season, New Orleans will have to navigate at least a portion of its season without the NFL's all-time leader in passing yards, completions and completion percentage, among other all-time leading totals.
Brees will miss an unspecified amount of time due to rib injuries sustained over the course of this season. And, like last season, the Saints' defense is prepared to carry as much of the load as necessary for the team to remain successful.
"For me, I don't think we have to do anything different," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "Every time we step on the field, we want to compete and do our best on the defense. We want to be disruptive, we want to take the ball away and give our team the best chance we can to win. That is no different with or without Drew Brees on the field.
"The biggest thing for us is to not go and try to overcompensate or try to go outside of ourselves to make up something. The guys we have on the field are more than capable to go out and execute. We have to stress that and just do our part and do our job."
The defense proved its ability to do that last year in victories over Seattle (33-27), Dallas (12-10), Tampa Bay (31-24), Jacksonville (13-6) and Chicago (36-25). After allowing 515 yards to Seattle, the Saints zoned in and allowed 247 yards per game over the next four.
Over the five weeks, New Orleans held opponents to 18 of 62 (29 percent) on third down, 3-for-9 (33 percent) on fourth down and totaled nine sacks, with a fumble return for a touchdown and two interceptions.
The Saints have been in a similar defensive groove with Brees on the field for 10 of their last 12 quarters.
In wins over Chicago (26-23 in overtime), Tampa Bay (38-3) and San Francisco (27-13), the Saints allowed 268 yards per game (51 per game rushing). The Bears, Buccaneers and 49ers were a combined 13 of 40 (33 percent) on third down, 2 of 7 (29 percent) on fourth down and 2 of 6 (33 percent) in the red zone, while New Orleans intercepted six passes and rolled up 10 sacks.
"It's a team," Coach Sean Payton said. "It's not offense, or it's not just defense. We're trying to, No. 1, play a complementary game. I think that's important. I think situationally, we've improved defensively. We started off the year, and we're still looking at the numbers – red zone, third down, those numbers are climbing back to a better position. But I think most importantly, when you're trying to win enough games to give yourself the best seed, you're going to have to play well in all three areas."
In the first six games, opponents were 19 of 22 (86 percent) in the red zone and 41 of 81 (51 percent) on third-down conversions.
"I think every week our confidence is growing," said Jenkins, who has an interception in each of the last two games. "Every week we're executing very well, playing a lot faster and a lot more physical and the team will need us to do that moving forward. For us, it's that each week improving from where we were last week. I don't think we started where we wanted to at the beginning of the season, but we understand that it's a long season and we want to finish out where we want to be."
Partly, the route could require beating an Atlanta team that has taken off since Raheem Morris became interim coach. The Falcons are 3-1 since Dan Quinn was fired following an 0-5 start.
In the last four, Atlanta has scored 30 points per game. Matt Ryan (2,746 passing yards, 67 percent completions, 15 touchdowns and five interceptions) and Julio Jones (43 catches, 638 yards, three touchdowns) remain the standard bearers for Atlanta, but there's also Calvin Ridley (43 catches, 657 yards, six touchdowns) and Todd Gurley (159 carries, 584 yards, nine rushing touchdowns) to track.
"They're playing at a high level," Payton said of Ryan and Jones. "Both of those two guys, then you add in Ridley and (receiver Russell) Gage and the running back (Gurley). Offensively, they're operating as efficiently and as effectively as we've seen in quite a while."
Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris said introspection has helped lead to improvement for Atlanta.
"The thing that we've tried to focus on the most is us, and that's forcing our will on our opponent and getting our jobs done, our jobs being scoring and getting the ball back," he said. "Leaving that simple messaging, keeping it real simple, real sweet, defined for your players and for your coaches."