FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant expects to be exhausted by the end of Atlanta’s NFC South showdown Sunday at New Orleans.
Drew Brees, the Saints’ eight-time Pro Bowl quarterback, is renowned for sidestepping pressure and picking defenses apart.
In the series, Brees is 13-4 with 35 touchdowns and 19 interceptions and has won seven of eight starts against Atlanta at the Superdome.
That’s a bad matchup for the Falcons, who rank last in sacks, last in pass defense and last in third-down efficiency.
“We’ve got to cover for longer,” Trufant said Thursday. “And when he throws it up there, go make plays.”
If only it were that easy.
For Atlanta (5-9) to keep its division title hopes alive with a victory at New Orleans (6-8), Trufant knows the defense must clamp down its coverage on All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham and a dynamic receiving corps led by Marques Colston and Kenny Stills.
The Falcons aren’t as healthy as they were in Week 1, when reserve cornerback Robert McClain picked off Brees in the third quarter and William Moore stripped away the ball from Colston in overtime.
Those turnovers led to a touchdown and the game-winning field goal, but this time Atlanta will face New Orleans with starting cornerback Robert Alford on injured reserve and Moore expected to play with a foot injury.
“I think we’re going to be ready as far as what Drew brings,” Moore said. “He’s a different breed. Every time we play him, he gives us everything. That’s one thing they focus on — extending plays and getting receivers open. He doesn’t go to the first one. He looks for the play downfield first.”
For coach Mike Smith, stopping Brees begins with shutting down New Orleans’ rushing attack and limiting the play choices of Saints coach Sean Payton.
The Falcons looked better against the run last week despite losing at home to Pittsburgh. They held Le’Veon Bell, the league’s second-leading rusher, to just 2.4 yards per attempt on 20 carries.
Against New Orleans, Atlanta will face the trio of Mark Ingram, Khiry Robinson and Pierre Thomas, who lead a ground game that averages over 120 yards per game to rank ninth.
“Sean wants to run the football,” Smith said. “It sets up his passing game. It sets up his ability to throw the ball down field.”
Graham and Colston are both big, strong and fast and have traditionally caused the Falcons’ smaller defensive backs fits.
Trufant says the Falcons are promising each other not to get frustrated if and when Brees connects.
“Jimmy Graham is obviously a mismatch player,” Trufant said. “Colston has been doing it for years. We’ve just got to be solid. We know they’re going to take their shots, try to blow the top off, so we have to keep them in front and make plays.”
The key will be to force turnovers when those chances are presented.
Atlanta picked off 12 passes and recovered three fumbles over a six-game stretch before creating no takeaways in losses the last two weeks.
Getting a couple of turnovers against the Saints could help keep the score close.
“I don’t think there’s been but one game down in New Orleans that it’s been more than a one-score game since we’ve been here,” said Smith, now in his seventh season with the Falcons. “I think it’s the same thing when they come to Atlanta. It’s going to be a competitive football game.”
Notes: WR Julio Jones, the NFL’s second-leading wideout, has been unable to practice for the last two weeks because of a hip injury and was not on the field again Thursday. Smith said that Jones will be a game-time decision. ... RG Jon Asamoah (back) did not participate for the second straight day. ... (Moore, WR Roddy White (knee) and WR Harry Douglas (foot) were limited participants.