FLOWERY BRANCH — The Falcons (5-3) face Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints (6-3) with first-place on the line at 1 p.m. Sunday at Georgia Dome.
Here are the five keys to the game:
1. Get New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees on the ground. The Falcons’ defensive line has played the run well, but has not consistently put pressure on quarterbacks. The Falcons’ run defense has given up 96.5 yards per game, which ranks seventh in the NFL. Jonathan Babineaux and Corey Peters, who have battled knee injuries, are getting healthier and playing stronger. The Falcons have just 15 sacks and are led by John Abraham and Peters, who have three apiece. The Saints have given up 19 sacks this season, which is tied for 13th in the NFL. The Saints’ line collapsed in their upset 31-21 loss to St. Louis on Oct. 30. They gave ups six sacks and had trouble running the ball. In the second meeting last year, the Falcons sent several free blitzers at Brees, but couldn’t get him sacked.
2. Run the ball with Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers: During their three-game winning streak, the Falcons have re-emphasized the run and have averaged 152.7 yards rushing. Turner, after rushing for more than 100 yards in two consecutive games, was on his way to another 100-yard game Sunday when the team pulled him with 2:50 left in the third quarter against the Colts. He had 71 yards on 19 carries. Turner is on pace to rush for 1,384 yards and 14 yards and is closing in on the franchise all-time rushing-touchdown record and the mark for most 100-yard games. After scoring a touchdown against the Colts, Turner pulled within two scores of Gerald Riggs’ franchise record for career rushing touchdowns. Riggs, who played for the Falcons from 1982-88, scored 48 touchdowns. Turner has 23 100-yard games, and Riggs has 24. Rodgers is coming on strong in his change-of-pace role.
3. Control Saints tight end Jimmy Graham: Falcons safety James Sanders could get the start Sunday if William Moore is not able to play. Sanders, who signed Aug. 30 after being released by the New England Patriots, started against Philadelphia on Sept. 18, but has played mostly on special teams. Moore suffered a quadriceps injury against the Colts. Sanders has played 91 games in the NFL and started 51, so he won’t be overwhelmed. However, he’ll the key defender against New Orleans second-year tight end Jimmy Graham.
4. Falcons must continue to score red zone: The Falcons will enter Sunday’s game with a clear advantage in red zone offense against the Saints’ red zone defense. The Falcons rank No. 2 in the NFL in red zone offense while the Saints rank last in red zone defense. The Falcons have scored 147 points on 28 trips inside the 20-yard line. They’ve scored 18 touchdowns and made seven field goals. The Falcons’ touchdown percentage (64.3) ranks second in the NFL. The Saints have yielded 15 touchdowns in 21 opponents’ possessions inside the 20-yard line (71.4 percent).
5. Contain Saints scatback Darren Sproles: After five seasons of mixed results, the Saints turned the page on the Reggie Bush-era and signed dynamic all-purpose back Darren Sproles in free agency. He’s a threat running, receiving and returning kickoffs and punts. Sproles, at 5-foot-6, is the only player in the NFL with touchdowns rushing, receiving and on a return this season. Bush became predictable because he did not run between the tackles with any toughness or enthusiasm. That’s certainly not the case with Sproles, who leads the Saints in rushing with 347 yards on 49 carries for a whopping 7.1 average per carry. Sproles, a seven-year veteran from Kansas State, also leads the Saints in receiving with 56 catches. The Falcons linebackers will be busy.
–D. Orlando Ledbetter, The Atlanta Falcons beat blog