The New Orleans Saints got in the win column against Cleveland, and that's about the best that could be said about their first victory of the season. Likely, similar play – two lost fumbles, two missed touchdowns, a missed field goal, 3 of 12 on third down – won't cut it on the road against an NFC South Division rival. The Atlanta Falcons haven't exactly been lights out this season, either, but the Saints are more concerned with cleaning up their own play. Here are a few areas to watch Sunday:
- Since Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan entered the league, the Saints have won 11 of the 19 times the teams have played with Ryan starting. In six of those wins, the Saints have at least one interception and a sack. In two other wins, the Saints recorded five sacks in each game even though Ryan completed 68 and 77 percent of his passes, respectively. In other words, when the Saints get to Ryan, good things happen for them. New Orleans recorded its first three sacks of the season against Cleveland – Cam Jordan had two, Sheldon Rankins got the other one – but Ryan isn't likely to hold onto the ball as long as did Browns quarterback Tyrod Taylor. Still, New Orleans has shown that it can pressure Ryan and it'll have to do so again Sunday.
- New Orleans didn't have an admirable per-carry average against Cleveland (2.7 yards), but it did manage 23 rushing attempts. So it was better balanced offensively from that standpoint, and it needs to continue to have at least that kind of ratio in order to keep Atlanta's defense honest. The overall numbers don't look great – Alvin Kamara leads the Saints with 75 yards on 21 carries – but it's worthwhile to note that Kamara also has 15 catches for 165 yards. Call them receptions, but the reality is that some of them also serve as long handoffs that get the ball to Kamara in space. Kamara's per-touch average (6.7 yards) is more than good enough to help the Saints keep the chains moving.
- The Falcons have bolstered their receiving corps, adding Mohamed Sanu in 2016 and drafting Calvin Ridley this year. Julio Jones is still The Man. So it always bears watching when, arguably, the league's best receiver (Jones) is shadowed by Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who proved during his NFL-Defensive-Rookie-of-the-Year season that he didn't fear the challenge of covering Jones, and fully was capable of holding his own. It's a marquee matchup and while the Saints may employ a variety of schemes in order to deal with Jones and his fellow receivers, know that Lattimore looks forward to testing his skills against the best of the best.
- All due respect to the Browns, third-down efficiency will mean a lot more against Atlanta than it did against Cleveland. One of the best defenses against Atlanta's offense could be keeping it off the field, and the Saints can do that by converting third downs and maintaining possession. Don't get me wrong – no one is going to be offended by quick-strike, two- to three-minute touchdown drives if New Orleans manages to post a couple or three of them. But 3 for 12 on third down usually is a bad sign on the road; the Saints probably need to be, minimum, high-30s in third-down percentage.
- Keep an eye on the Saints' return game. Taysom Hill ripped off a 47-yard kickoff return against Cleveland and after Tommylee Lewis was injured, Kamara fielded a punt. Likely, Ted Ginn Jr. will handle the punt-return duties against Atlanta and it'll be a big help if he, or Hill, help flip the field position once or twice.
- The Falcons are missing two huge defensive cogs, safety Keanu Neal (torn ACL, out for the season) and linebacker Deion Jones (foot injury, out several weeks). New Orleans will want to take advantage of the fill-ins, as any team would. But the Saints, perhaps more than most, are well-equipped to do so with a quarterback like Drew Brees. It'll be an intriguing chess match as the Falcons attempt to hide the inexperience, and Brees looks to expose it.