In addition to preparing his defense to face the likes of Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston and Darren Sproles, Nolan must also attempt to anticipate what kind of offensive wizardry Saints head coach Sean Payton will unveil in his return to the sidelines after a year-long suspension.
Since his arrival in New Orleans in 2006, Payton's high-scoring offense has been predicated on creating and taking advantage of individual mismatches with the numerous pass-catchers around the Saints perennial Pro Bowl quarterback.
Given their 3-11 record against the Saints in that same time period, the Atlanta Falcons are all too familiar with how lethal the Saints offensive scheme can be. Yes, Atlanta was able to split two games with New Orleans last season, but they did so while Sean Payton and his highly-regarded play-callling skills were absent.
If the Falcons want to regain the upper hand in this rivalry and beat the Saints in New Orleans for the first time since 2010, they're going to have to win a game of chess against two of the NFL's brightest offensive minds in Drew Brees and Sean Payton.
How can Mike Nolan and the Falcons defense get the best of Drew Brees and Sean Payton on Sunday?
We took a look at film from New Orleans' 2011 season, the last time Payton and Brees were together, as well as film from both 2012 Falcons-Saints games in hopes of finding some hints as to how to slow down the Saints' offensive braintrust.
Based on that film study, here are our suggestions on how the Atlanta Falcons defense can get the best of Sean Payton and Drew Brees in New Orleans on Sunday.
1. Anticipate the mismatch and disguise the coverage
Jimmy Graham emerged as a superstar in his second-year back in 2011, the same year that they acquired veteran running back Darren Sproles in free agency.
For the past two seasons, Graham and Sproles have been the two most difficult matchups for opposing defenses because of Graham's rare combination of size and athleticism and Sproles' quickness and route-running ability out of the backfield.
In fact, Drew Brees targeted Graham more than any other receiver on the team the last two seasons, with Sproles coming a distant second in 2011 and third in 2012 (behind Marques Colston).
Given that, there's a strong chance that the ball is going to end up with either Graham or Sproles on every offensive snap. The key to slowing them down is being cognizant of where each player lines up in the various formations that Sean Payton and Drew Brees will inevitably throw at the defense, anticipating the mismatch that New Orleans is trying to take advantage of based on the formation.
Here's a perfect of example of how the Saints burned the Falcons with this concept late in a Monday Night Game in 2011:
In the first screenshot we see that the Falcons didn't do a whole lot to hide their coverage. Granted this is late in a game that was already decided, but if you're playing Drew Brees and Sean Payton, you can't make it this easy for them. The Saints lined Sproles and Graham up to the short side of the field to create a mismatch.
At the snap, you can see that Atlanta is not in bad shape on the wide side of the field with Thomas DeCoud, Brent Grimes and Mike Peterson taking care of two wide receivers and a fullback. However, on the short side, the Falcons are forced to double-team Jimmy Graham with William Moore to avoid leaving the 6'7" tight end alone on 5'10" Dunta Robinson in the red zone.
That creates room for the shifty Darren Sproles to come out of the backfield and race between Sean Weatherspoon and Curtis Lofton for a touchdown. You can be fairly certain that Drew Brees and Sean Payton saw all of that pre-snap because Atlanta didn't disguise anything.
If Atlanta is going to have a shot at slowing those two down, they have got to make it a little more difficult for them to figure out how Atlanta is going to adjust to their formation prior to the snap.
Here's an example of how Mike Nolan made things a little more interesting for Drew Brees in the red zone during last year's Atlanta victory at the Georgia Dome:
It should be noted that Nolan had the benefit of knowing the Saints had to get to the end zone here because they had no timeouts and the clock was running, but even still Nolan understood that you've got to use a little wizardry of your own if you're going to beat Drew Brees.
Prior to the snap you see seven Falcons defenders roaming the goal line without giving too much of an indication of what they are going do to when the ball is snapped. You can see that they also anticipate Darren Sproles (circled) leaking out of the backfield because in all likelihood they accounted for him just like they did Jimmy Graham as soon as the Saints lined up.
This sequence was a victory partly because the defense had the clock on its side, but Mike Nolan and his crew should note this lesson for Sunday's game: Don't telegraph anything when you're playing Sean Payton and Drew Brees.
2. Don't save your best blitzes for third down
In addition to not telegraphing their coverages, the Falcons defense would be wise to use a few timely, early-down blitzes to take the Saints offense off its schedule.
Sean Payton has earned a reputation as one of the better play-callers in the league because he's unpredictable. He knows he has a quarterback who always looks downfield for the big play, and he isn't afraid to dial up a long ball on first down.
With that in mind, the Falcons should take a page from the 2011 Rams, who pulled off one of the bigger upsets of the season that year when they beat the eventual NFC South Champion Saints.
This is a first-and-10 early in the game. St. Louis did its homework and knew that the Saints liked to take shots downfield on early downs from time to time.
Rather than saving this aggressive blitz for a third-and-long when Payton and Brees would inevitably have the perfect play call to deal with it, the Rams called the perfect blitz at the perfect time to blow up this play-action pass play for an eight-yard loss.
If New Orleans is going to be aggressive on first down, you have to follow suit as a defense. As great as Drew Brees and Sean Payton are, their options become much more limited when they are facing second-and-long consistently.
The Falcons can't wait until third down to be aggressive against this offense. They have to bring the funk to New Orleans in the early downs and keep Drew Brees on his toes.
3. Long drives are better than big plays, turn your safeties into center fielders
As we mentioned, Drew Brees loves to take his shots downfield. When you watch him on tape, he will sometimes hold onto the ball a little longer than he should in hopes that his deep receiver can get enough separation for a big play.
After all, you don't become a 5,000 yard passer by dinking and dunking the ball around right?
The Falcons should use this against Brees and bait him into some turnovers the way Thomas DeCoud did on this play from last year's Thursday Night contest.
Here, once again on first down, Brees is looking for a deep touchdown strike but Thomas DeCoud bails into a deep-third coverage at the snap of the ball. Because the Falcons anticipate the deep pass, DeCoud is able to mirror Brees and lure him into thinking he could zip this ball into Marques Colston before DeCoud could makeup the ground.
Now, you probably won't see Drew Brees throw five interceptions again like he did that Thursday night, but the bigger point is that Atlanta's safeties must stay disciplined against the Saints.
Whichever safety is responsible for guarding against the long ball has to stay deeper than the deepest Saints receiver, because with Drew Brees it's not a matter of "if", it's a matter of when he will take his shot at completing a long ball down the field.
Thomas DeCoud and William Moore have to take away the big play, even at the expense of giving up some yards underneath them.
The more plays the Saints have to run to score, the more opportunities for them to make a mistake.
Drew Brees and Sean Payton are too talented to shut down completely, but there are some things the Atlanta defense can do to slow them down and make the game more difficult for them.
The key is to play defense the way the Saints play offense: Vary and disguise your defensive formations, be unpredictable with your blitzes and use the Saints shots down field as opportunities for your safeties to be playmakers.
Beyond doing that, the Falcons best defense on Sunday will be their own offense. Sean Payton and Drew Brees can't work together without the ball, and with the collection of talent that the Falcons have on offense I think it's a safe bet that Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan isn't sleeping much either.