Saints Falcons Football

New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram (22) is tripped up by Atlanta Falcons middle linebacker Deion Jones (45) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman) ORG XMIT: GAMS107

David Goldman

For most of this century, the New Orleans Saints-Atlanta Falcons rivalry has been defined by the offenses.

New Orleans has had Drew Brees and Marques Colston, Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles, Deuce McAllister and Joe Horn, Mark Ingram, Brandin Cooks and Michael Thomas.

Atlanta, on the other hand, has had Matt Ryan and Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Michael Turner, Warrick Dunn and Alge Crumpler, and the incomparable Julio Jones.

When these teams meet in prime time Thursday night for the first time this season, plenty of offensive firepower will still be on hand. Brees and Ryan are still around, throwing to Thomas and Jones; Atlanta's duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman has been matched by Ingram and sensational rookie Alvin Kamara.

But this matchup also features a pair of defenses on the rise, the product of an NFC South arms race over the past couple of NFL drafts.

New Orleans, once the laughingstock of NFL defenses, ranks 12th in total defense and 12th in scoring defense. Atlanta, which flashed its defensive potential in its run to the Super Bowl last season, is realizing that potential (somewhat) under Dan Quinn this season, ranked eighth in total defense and 13th in scoring defense.

"I would say in the selection of players, yes, and identifying guys that fit with what you think you want to do, yes," Saints coach Sean Payton said, referring to the reasons for the teams' defensive rise.

"I think there are some differences in the type of defenses that we play, but just from the standpoint in bringing in younger players that fit a vision of what you’re wanting to do, clearly, they’ve done a great job of that."

Atlanta's direction on defense became obvious the moment the Falcons hired Quinn away from Seattle in February 2015. 

From that moment, Atlanta was on a path to becoming Seahawks South, mimicking the historic defenses Quinn coordinated in the Pacific Northwest.

Atlanta opened the rebuild in 2015 by drafting Vic Beasley to rush the passer, former LSU star Jalen Collins to develop like Richard Sherman, Grady Jarrett to anchor in the middle. Then the Falcons drafted Keanu Neal to play the Kam Chancellor role and found their versions of Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright in Deion Jones, another former LSU star, and De'Vondre Campbell.

Talented edge rusher Takkarist McKinley and LSU's Duke Riley added even more to the picture this season. Add all of that talent to veterans like Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford at cornerback and Adrian Clayborn at defensive end, and the Falcons look more and more like Quinn's Seattle teams with each passing season.

"They can run; I think that's one thing on film. They can run at all the positions," Payton said. "They rush the passer very well, and if you get into third down, (you see) a lot of the things we saw happen in Seattle with the pass rush, with the rotation of guys coming off the field."

New Orleans briefly tried to mimic the Seattle blueprint, a gambit that essentially ended with Rob Ryan's firing two seasons ago. 

Ultimately, the Saints went back to their recent Super Bowl past instead, empowering Dennis Allen to run the aggressive, blitz-heavy scheme he developed while under Gregg Williams.

But the method of finding the talent to run Allen's scheme has been built primarily through the draft. New Orleans already had a pair of stars in defensive end Cameron Jordan and safety Kenny Vaccaro, and then role players were added with situational rusher Hau'oli Kikaha, cornerback P.J. Williams and nose tackle Tyeler Davison under Ryan in 2015. 

Then the prime playmakers started coming. New Orleans drafted Sheldon Rankins, Vonn Bell and David Onyemata last season, then followed that with Rookie of the Year candidate Marshon Lattimore, free safety Marcus Williams, linebacker Alex Anzalone and defensive end Trey Hendrickson this time around, as well as developmental rusher Al-Quadin Muhammad.

New Orleans complemented those drafts by building depth with free-agent signings like Nick Fairley, A.J. Klein, Alex Okafor and Craig Robertson, among others, and the fruits of that labor are starting to ripen.

The evidence is obvious when the Falcons turn on the tape.

"The thing that jumps out is, you see the speed that they are trying to feature, and for sure that part’s similar," Quinn said. "Fundamentally they look like a good tackling group. ... I think from a speed standpoint, especially in the secondary — for sure, that part is the same."

Both teams have made mistakes. New Orleans traded former first-round pick Stephone Anthony this season; Atlanta waived Collins after multiple suspensions.

But what sticks out is the number of drafted players who have made impacts as rookies. Both teams have plugged draft picks right into their lineups, a rarity in an NFL that often forces rookies to go through a learning curve before making a jump. 

For both teams, the key is the vision for how the prospect will fit within the defense.

"You’re discussing how do you feature the players in the roles that they would play?" Quinn said. "You have to use a little bit of creativity to say, 'If he was on our team, this is how we would try to play him?’ ” 

Plenty is at stake for these teams Thursday night. 

A New Orleans win would all but clinch the NFC South with three games left to play; Atlanta can still win the division if the Falcons win the rest of their games, but a win is also crucial for a 7-5 team that faces a razor-thin margin of error in the NFC's competitive playoff race.

For these teams, the stakes feel familiar.

"They have won a ton of games since we’ve been here over the last 12 years," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "We’ve had some great battles with those guys, regardless of the records. They’ve won division titles and been the (No.) 1 seed; we’ve won division titles and been the 1 seed. The bottom line is, you’re going to have a very competitive game."

But there is a difference.

This time, the defenses for both teams are bringing as much firepower as their counterparts on offense. 

Follow Joel A. Erickson on Twitter, @JoelAErickson.