Tale of the Tape: Brees, Ryan square off in N.O.

Heading into their second matchup with the Saints this season, the Falcons will look to duplicate their last performance –- minus one fourth-down failure.

Despite a turnover-on-downs in overtime that cost them a Week 10 contest with New Orleans, Atlanta couldn’t have dreamed for a better scenario on defense. They finished as one of four teams to hold New Orleans to less than 100 rushing yards (and the only one to lose). On top of that, Drew Brees‘ 363 yards and two touchdowns were pedestrian by 2011 standards.

But one faulty series in overtime made them an outlier on Brees’ soon-to-be record-breaking season. Balance is the key to New Orleans’ offense, and for Atlanta to hang in with the NFC South leaders once more, it will need to not only stop the No. 1 passing offense in the league (331.4 yards per game), but also the eighth-ranked rushing attack (125.4 yards per game).

Saints offense vs.
Falcons defense

If Atlanta is going to contend with New Orleans, they will need to pressure Brees. And its best chance of getting immediate pressure on the Saints’ quick-release quarterback is defensive end John Abraham.

In the month of December, Abraham has collected 4.5 of his 8.5 sacks this season. Quick off the ball and skilled with his hands, he has the tools to frustrate left tackle Jermon Bushrod and right tackle Zach Strief, because he aligns to either side.

The Saints can counter the Falcons’ rush by establishing the run early (they run 44 percent of the time on first down) and executing off play-action, half-boots on later downs. With run action toward Abraham, New Orleans can slide its protection over to Atlanta’s No. 1 pass rusher while also closing off his outside speed rush with chips by a running back.

In recent weeks, the Saints have had success running boots with a post/cross combination, manipulating safeties that must choose to honor the cross or stay over the top of the post. Either way, Brees finds the open man.

In Week 10, the Saints used a play-action, half-boot with a post/over route combination, hitting Robert Meachem for a 33-yard touchdown over the top.

Falcons offense vs.
Saints defense

When facing a blitzing defense like the Saints, the key is picking your spots. While a blitz brings defenders into the box versus the run and forces the line to account for rushers in the pass game, it can also leave unguarded areas if defenders aren’t disciplined within the scheme.

No matter what, you know the Saints are blitzing on third down. On third downs of four yards or more, New Orleans blitzes a league-high 77.27 percent of the time (second place goes to the Jets, with 67.7 blitz percentage).

Luckily for the Falcons, they have two excellent targets over the middle of the field -– tight end Tony Gonzalez and slot receiver Harry Douglas -– who can exploit the voids in the second and third levels of the Saints defense. In their last matchup, Matt Ryan targeted Douglas and Gonzalez 24 times, completing 14 passes for 204 yards and a touchdown.

At the same time, it might be advantageous for the Falcons to catch the Saints on a run blitz. On 23 carries versus a New Orleans run blitz, opposing offenses have gained a staggering 7.09 yards per carry. This reflects a lack of gap discipline by the Saints defense – an advantage Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers can exploit to keep the Falcons in third-and-manageable situations, out of obvious pass/blitzing situations for the Saints D, and not in danger of having to convert a fourth down.

Our take

We have a hard time imagining that the Saints won’t have more than 41 yards on the ground a second time around, but, if the Falcons want to prove they are a playoff contender, this is the kind of game they have to win.

In all reality, this game could go either way. The good ones are always that way.

But we’ll push our chips into the Saints’ corner -– Brees’ corner, more specifically.

“Playbook” — the ultimate football Xs and Os show — airs Friday at 8 p.m. ET (AFC) and 9 p.m. ET (NFC) on NFL Network. Check the NFL Network broadcast schedule for further details. Follow “Playbook” on Twitter @NFLN_Playbook.

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