Scouting report: Saints know Falcons are better than last year’s record

It should be clear by now that the Falcons are not as bad as their 4-12 record last season indicated. This group has too much talent to viewed as a four-win team.

If the Falcons are blessed with good health and their offensive line comes together as hoped, Atlanta could easily be back in the mix in the NFC South. The Saints are well aware of this and will look to put a stop to the Falcons’ rise Sunday afternoon in Atlanta.

How can this task be accomplished? New Orleans will need to find a way to put a stop to Atlanta’s dangerous offense. Wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White should both be fully healthy after fighting ailments last season, and Matt Ryan is still one of the better quarterbacks in the division.

That means the defense, particularly the secondary, will face a big test this weekend. Cornerback Keenan Lewis will need to prove that his efforts last season, when he emerged as a player worthy of Pro Bowl consideration, were not a fluke. And Patrick Robinson, who beat out Champ Bailey for the other cornerback job, will need to put the struggles that plagued him in previous seasons behind him if the Saints hope to slow Jones and White.

One thing working in New Orleans’ favor is that former Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez is no longer with the team. With Levin Toilolo now at tight end, the Saints no longer have to worry about covering Gonzalez downfield and likely will be able to defend the tight end position as they would against any other team. That should make it easier for Robinson and Lewis to get safety help from Kenny Vaccaro and Jairus Byrd.

Atlanta running back Steven Jackson is the other element of Atlanta’s offense that should not be overlooked. It’s hard to know what the veteran has to offer since he posted 543 rushing yards over 12 games last season and was limited by a hamstring injury during the preseason, but he has proved capable throughout his career. Until he proves that last season is his new norm and wasn’t a fluke, he has to be respected and accounted for.

Know your opponent: The Falcons’ Matt Ryan

Allowing Matt Ryan to comfortably stand in the pocket is the easiest way for the Saints to make sure that their first Sunday of the new season is not a pleasant one.

This statement would be true in any game. Give a quarterback time, and he’ll look much better than when he’s facing pressure. But this is especially true when it comes Ryan.

The Falcons quarterback completed 74 percent of his passes last season when given a clean pocket, and only 56.3 percent when facing pressure, according to Pro Football Focus. So the key to victory Sunday is simple: Get after the quarterback.

Still, the Saints need to be smart when they blitz. Ryan has the ability to pick apart a defense when an extra pass rusher is sent, as evidenced by the 61.7 completion percentage he posted when facing a blitz last season.

Atlanta hopes that getting after Ryan will not be as easy as it was last season, when he was sacked a career-high 44 times. The Falcons drafted tackle Jake Matthews in the first-round of May’s draft with an eye on revamping the offensive line. But losing Sam Baker for the season during the preseason was a major blow.

Three and out

1. Robinson’s debut: The Saints believe in cornerback Patrick Robinson and chose to go into the season with him instead of Champ Bailey. He can begin proving he deserves the team’s confidence after appearing shaky in previous seasons.

2. Is Brees ready? Drew Brees only played three series this preseason because of a left oblique strain, and the team would have liked to see him get a little more work. But the quarterback declared himself 100 percent this week and said he has gotten enough work in during practice to feel ready for the season.

3. Road woes: The Saints were not good enough on the road last season. The team dominated at the Superdome but went 3-5 away from it. They can begin to change the story Sunday by going into the Georgia Dome and taking one away from the Falcons.

Injury report

SAINTS

OUT: WR Kenny Stills (quadriceps)

Stills sat out the first, second and fourth exhibition games, and he re-aggravated the injury in the third. He was limited in practice Wednesday and Friday, and he missed Thursday. He won’t be able to line up opposite Marques Colston, but the Saints have plenty of fill-in candidates: Brandin Cooks, Joseph Morgan, Robert Meachem and Nick Toon.

OUT: S Marcus Ball (hamstring)

Ball missed the last two preseason games. He did not practice Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. As long as Jairus Byrd, Kenny Vaccaro and Rafael Bush are healthy, Ball will not be above them on the depth chart. The only other safety on the roster is rookie Vinnie Sunseri, who should see lots of action on special teams.

OUT: FB Erik Lorig (ankle)

Lorig was hurt in the Saints intrasquad scrimmage Aug. 2 and has been out since. Filling in is Austin Johnson, who will appear in his first NFL regular-season game.

FALCONS

PROBABLE: DT Corey Peters (Achilles tendon), S Dezmen Southward (concussion)

Predictions

Ramon Antonio Vargas: Saints 28, Falcons 24

Since 2006, history tells us these games are usually close and won by the Saints. New Orleans has won 13 of 16 encounters with Atlanta in the past eight years. Eight of 12 meetings between the Saints and Falcons under Mike Smith have been decided by six or fewer points, and the difference in a ninth encounter was nine. Expect this one to hold true to the trends.

Nick Underhill: Saints 27, Falcons 20

Forget about the road woes of last season. The Saints are the more talented team and should have no problem going into Atlanta and reminding the Falcons they are still the class of the NFC South. Atlanta has enough talent to make this one interesting, but Rob Ryan’s defense should be able to generate enough pressure to force Matt Ryan into a few mistakes.

Scott Rabalais: Saints 27, Falcons 24

The Saints’ dominance of the Falcons under Sean Payton (12-2) is enough to confound even the most wizened Vegas oddsmakers. Still, there have been close calls, like the 2013 opener decided on the final snap. The Saints are the superior team, but Atlanta’s potent passing attack makes this another classic in one of the NFL’s testiest rivalries.