METAIRIE — In their first meeting this season just 17 days ago, the New Orleans Saints did to the Atlanta Falcons what most NFL coaches go into every game hoping to do.
The Saints ran the ball with some authority, even though they went into the game ranked 30th in rushing, and stopped the run in a 31-27 victory over the previously undefeated Falcons in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
It was textbook football for the Saints, who can only hope to get similar results when the NFC South rivals meet again Thursday night in the Georgia Dome.
The Saints, who had only two 100-yard games to that point in the season and were averaging just 81.0 yards per game, pounded the Falcons for 148 yards. In doing so, they averaged 5.1 yards on 29 carries, with Chris Ivory setting the tone with a 56-yard touchdown run in the first quarter.
On the other side of the ball, the Saints’ 32nd-ranked run defense held the Falcons’ once-vaunted rushing game to 46 yards — the only time they’ve given up fewer than 100 yards all season — and allowed 2.6 yards per attempt.
The results on both sides of the ball have given them confidence and a little bit of swagger, which, interim coach Joe Vitt said, came from the proper preparation.
“Every week, every game takes on a life of its own and a challenge of its own,” Vitt said. “We played them on a short week (after playing on a Monday night) and had to come back from a night game.
“These guys are professional players. We’ve got the right people in this locker room, and they prepare properly. There are always challenges, but those challenges are never going to be an excuse for failure.”
The challenge this week is to try to duplicate that improbable success against a Falcons’ team that has turned to the passing game more than ever this season and ranks 28th in rushing — one spot lower than the Saints — and 22nd against the run.
“What we took away from that first game is we put up some good points, we controlled the ball, and we had good ball security,” Saints fullback Jed Collins said. “That’s the kind of simple things we have to take into this week’s game.”
The Saints also threw for 298 yards, with quarterback Drew Brees tossing three touchdowns after an early interception, which helped open running lanes for Ivory, Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram.
“We had a better 1-2 punch that day,” Collins said. “The Saints’ offense runs smooth when Drew doesn’t have everything on his shoulders. If we can establish the running game early, it helps everything. It helps the run game, it helps the pass game. But more importantly, it helps our defense. We played well against them last time we played, and we have to bring the same intensity and same focus there.”
The game with the Falcons was the middle one of three straight in which the Saints rushed for at least 140 yards before being held to 59 yards in Sunday’s 31-21 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
But the Saints are confident they can get it going again Thursday night.
“Any team we play, we have confidence against,” Ivory said of knowing what they did against the Falcons the last time. “Any time you can establish the run and not have any turnovers, it’s going to be a positive thing. You’re going to have some momentum on your side.”
Ivory’s touchdown against the Falcons, which helped bring the Saints back from a quick 10-0 deficit, electrified the crowd as he outran two defenders to the sideline and avoided two would-be tacklers before cutting back across the field to stiff-arm Dunta Robinson on his way to the end zone.
At the same time, the Saints’ defense was bowing up and holding Falcons running back Michael Turner to just 15 yards on 13 carries.
Turner isn’t getting the ball as much as he used to because they rank second in passing offense, with Matt Ryan throwing to weapons like Tony Gonzalez, Roddy White and Julio Jones, but he and backup Jacquizz Rodgers are capable of putting up big numbers.
“I’m pretty sure they’re going to come out and try to run the ball,” strong safety Roman Harper said. “We did very well against the run the last time, and our front four has been playing exceptionally well. We’ve just got to keep that tempo, but we like the matchups there.”
Defensive end Cameron Jordan said the Saints had success because of their physicality up front, which middle linebacker Curtis Lofton said helped change the Falcons’ way of thinking that day.
“They would like to be more balanced,” said Lofton, who played with the Falcons from 2008-11. “It opens up their playbook when they can throw and run. When we played the last time, we made them one-dimensional and it kind of went in our favor.”