WHEN: 7:25 p.m. Thursday
WHERE: Mercedes-Benz Superdome
TV: CBS, NFL Network
RADIO: WWL-AM, 870; WWL-FM, 105.3 in New Orleans; KMDL-FM, 97.3 in Lafayette; WDGL-FM, 98.1 in Baton Rouge
RECORDS: New Orleans 1-4; Atlanta 5-0
COACHES: Saints, Sean Payton, 10th season (81-52); Falcons, Dan Quinn, first season (5-0)
LAST WEEK: For a moment Sunday, the high-flying Falcons looked vulnerable for the first time in three weeks, frustrated by a Washington defense that grounded Atlanta’s signature high-flying offense. Then Robert Alford picked off Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins and returned it for a touchdown to keep Atlanta among the ranks of the undefeated.
OFFENSE: Atlanta’s passing game is as explosive as it’s ever been, even with all-world wide receiver Julio Jones fighting a nagging hamstring injury. Ryan is third in the NFL with 1,456 passing yards this season, and Jones has been arguably the NFL’s best receiver, leading the league with 43 catches and second in the NFL with 545 receiving yards.
The big development for the Falcons offense has been second-year running back Devonta Freeman, who’s been one of the most productive running backs in the league since rookie Tevin Coleman went down with an injury. Freeman is tied for second in the NFL with 405 rushing yards, and he’s second among NFL running backs with 24 receptions so far, tying him with Saints back Mark Ingram and trailing only Detroit’s Theo Riddick. Freeman, a revelation for the Falcons, leads the NFL with eight touchdowns already this season.
Atlanta’s offensive line, thought to be a liability, has come together, giving up just nine sacks in five games and paving the way for the league’s ninth-best running game.
DEFENSE: Atlanta’s success has come largely on the basis of its secondary; the Falcons have just six sacks on the season, a number that ranks them second-to-last in the NFL, tied with Houston and Indianapolis. Much-hyped rookie Vic Beasley leads Atlanta with two sacks, but largely, Atlanta has struggled to get consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. What’s made the Falcons’ pass defense dangerous is a ballhawking secondary led by star cornerback Desmond Trufant. With Trufant holding down one side of the field, the Falcons have six picks, led by two from Alford and two from safety William Moore.
Atlanta also has the NFL’s No. 1 rushing defense, allowing just 78.4 yards per game behind defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux and an active pair of linebackers in Paul Worrilow and Justin Durant. With the way the Falcons have jumped out on opponents, Atlanta has faced just 20.2 attempts per game, the lowest figure in the league, but the Falcons are also limiting opponents to 3.9 yards per carry, which ranks 13th. If the Saints can stay in the game early, there might be an opportunity to run the ball.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Normally reliable kicker Matt Bryant missed two field goals against Washington, but the veteran is a steady player. Punter Matt Bosher averages 52.3 yards per offering, but the Falcons have allowed opposing return men to average 11 yards on punts and 28 yards on kicks. Return man Eric Weems has been largely pedestrian.