In a game that could begin to establish who is the class of the NFC South, the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints will square off in a Week 3 matchup. The confrontation will be the first divisional game for both teams.
In two games last season, Atlanta lost by a total of 11 points. It is arguable that the outcome would have been different in their Week 14 game at the Georgia Dome, a 26-23 Saints victory, had Matt Ryan and Michael Turner been healthy.
Despite their 2009 defeats, the Falcons showed they could hang with the Saints and hope to take a step forward by bringing down the Super Bowl champs in 2010.
Here are three things Atlanta must do this Sunday if they wish to win.
1. Run, Run, Then Run Some More.
It goes without saying that the more the New Orleans offense is kept on the bench, the greater the chances of an Atlanta victory are. The Saints' offense has not looked completely tuned in this season, and Atlanta would not like to give them the chance to get it together this week.
Running the ball and winning the time of possession battle would give New Orleans less of a chance to click on offense, and the Falcons should be able to run on this defense.
The Saints' D has given up almost five yards per carry in two games and allowed Frank Gore of San Francisco to gash them for 112 yards on 20 carries.
When Michael Turner was healthy in 2009, he went off against the Saints with 151 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries, a 7.6 yards per rush average.
Atlanta has two very capable backs in Turner and Jason Snelling. If they can establish the run early, they could be on their way to a win.
2. Avoid Turnovers.
New Orleans' defense thrived on creating turnovers last season. Their defense was incredibly effective due to their ability to swing momentum. Even when teams were able to eat up yards and drive the ball into Saints territory, the defense would crank up the pressure and force a turnover, resulting in huge momentum swings.
Aside from their surprise onside kick in Super Bowl XLIV, the play most remembered is Tracy Porter's championship-sealing interception.
In 2009's Week 8 showdown between the two teams, Matt Ryan threw three interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown and one on a play run from the Saints' 10 yard line. That's a possible 14-point swing. Without those two plays, Atlanta may well have come out on top.
The Falcons can help themselves in this category by winning the down-and-distance battle and by not falling behind. Getting down 3-0 or 10-7 would not be the end of the world, but allowing New Orleans to get ahead by two or more scores is asking for trouble.
New Orleans has an opportunistic defense that is most effective when they know their opponents are gong to pass, as in 3rd and long situations or when a team is down multiple scores late in the game. In those circumstances, they can dial up their blitzes, hit the quarterback, rattle him, and force bad throws.
Atlanta must do all they can to prevent this from happening.
3. Do Not Allow Big Plays.
Atlanta's defense has been great this year, except for two plays: a 50-yard game-winning touchdown run by Rashard Mendenhall in Week 1, and an 80-yard running score by Arizona's Tim Hightower last weekend.
The New Orleans offense has come into prominence the past few seasons due in large part to their ability to hit you for a score on any given play. Atlanta's defense was prone to giving up big chunks of yards through the air last season.
Seems like a recipe for disaster, doesn't it?
The Falcons made a commitment in the offseason to improving their defense with the goal of becoming one of the top units in the league. Defensive back Dunta Robinson was brought in to bolster the secondary, while linebacker Sean Weatherspoon was drafted mainly because of his ability in pass-coverage.
Through two games in 2010, the strategy has payed off, with Atlanta allowing just 360 passing yards. While the Steelers without Ben Roethlisberger and the current incarnation of the Cardinals are not high-powered offenses akin to Drew Brees and the Saints, it is a sign of progress and a trend the Falcons must continue on Sunday.
If Atlanta can prevent the big plays, they can keep the advantage in terms of field position and avoid falling behind, which will decrease their chances of turning the ball over and allow them to continue pounding it out on the ground.
It's all connected, you see.
If the Falcons can accomplish the three keys outlined here, they will come away with a Week 3 win.