The Atlanta Falcons don’t see any sense in letting themselves get enraged over the fact that they’re 3-13 against the Saints since quarterback Drew Brees arrived in New Orleans in 2006.
They simply respect New Orleans’ recent hegemony, attempt to block it from their minds and put confidence in offseason developments they’ve orchestrated as they prepare to face Brees and the Saints for a 17th occasion, this time to open their 2014 campaign at home at noon Sunday.
“Obviously, we have a lot of respect for them; and certainly, I have a ton of respect for Drew — I think he’s as good as it gets at this position and has played at a high level for a long time,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said Wednesday of the MVP of the Saints’ victory in Super Bowl XLIV as well as the player who’s thrown for the NFL’s most passing yards (10,339) and second-most touchdowns (82) since 2012.
“(Yet) I don’t think it’s something we’ve worried too much about — what’s happened the last couple of years. Really, what it comes down to is this week and what we do this week.”
Falcons coach Mike Smith echoed that tune, insisting, “What happened in the previous six or seven years is going to have no bearing on the game being played on Sunday.”
Instead, what the coach who has a 3-9 mark versus the Saints since taking over the Falcons in 2008 hopes will begin reversing the course of an increasingly lopsided NFC South rivalry is a commitment to beefing up the lines on either side of the ball. What a quarterback who’s suffered defeats in five of his eight career match-ups with the Saints makes him believe could alter the story a bit is the return of a star receiver he largely did without last season.
After going 4-12 and sharing the bottom spot in the NFC South with Tampa Bay, Atlanta acquired two defensive linemen in Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai in free agency, and they chose a third in Minnesota’s Ra’Shede Hageman in the second round of the draft in May.
Soliai and Hageman are both well over 300 pounds, and Jackson nearly eclipses that threshold. Then, after Ryan was taken down behind the line of scrimmage 44 times in 2013 (vastly surpassing his previous career high by 16), the Falcons signed 6-foot-4, 305-pound guard Jon Asamoah and used their first-round draft pick on the 6-foot-5, 304-pound tackle Jake Matthews out of Texas A&M.
“We felt we needed to get stronger,” said Smith, whose team won half of its four preseason exhibitions. “I think that we accomplished that.”
Meanwhile, perhaps the most excited Ryan got during his conference call with New Orleans media was when discussing receiver Julio Jones, who was sidelined for 11 games in 2013 with a fractured foot.
In 2012, as Atlanta reached the NFC Championship game, Jones earned a Pro Bowl nod with 1,198 yards and 10 touchdowns off 79 catches. His 20.8 yards per catch and one touchdown on four grabs this preseason served as an early sign that he could reproduce the form that helped Ryan post career highs in passing yards (4,719), touchdowns (32) and completion percentage (68.6) two years ago.
“He’s an incredibly explosive player, has really come into his own (and) had a great training camp coming off the injury last year,” Ryan said. “When he’s on the field for us, we’re a more dynamic offense. It’s going to be huge for us.”
But Ryan remained understandably cautious in his remarks about New Orleans. For one, his offensive line lost a projected starter in left tackle Sam Baker, who tore a patellar tendon in an exhibition after being out for 12 games in 2013.
The defense also lost a projected starter in linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who ruptured an Achilles tendon in June.
Ryan lauded the Saints’ offseason addition of safety Jairus Byrd, whose 22 interceptions are the most among players at his position since he entered the league in 2009.
He thinks Byrd and the rest of the Saints’ secondary are made even more dangerous by a front seven that includes pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette, who combined for 24.5 quarterback sacks in 2013 as New Orleans won 12 of 18 games to qualify for the divisional round of the playoffs.
All of which brings Ryan to an obvious conclusion.
“They’ve been a really good football team,” he said. “And we expect a tough match-up on Sunday.”
Since ’06, Saints coach Sean Payton is 12-2 against the Falcons. He missed the teams’ two encounters in 2012, when he was suspended due to the bounty scandal.