FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. - Facing Drew Brees is never easy for the Atlanta Falcons.
New Orleans’ record-setting quarterback is 8-2 in the NFC South rivalry and has put up some staggering numbers: 3,010 yards passing, a 68.1 completion percentage and 20 touchdowns.
“I really don’t think there’s anything to stopping him. I would say slowing him down is the key,” Falcons linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “He’s a very special player.”
Sunday’s home matchup could be one of Atlanta’s toughest against Brees now that new running back Darren Sproles complements an already talented group of receivers.
The Saints rank at or near the top of nearly every NFL offensive category, including a league-high 44 possessions in the red zone and an overall scoring average that ranks second.
“Sproles is a big factor in the red zone, because he’s a fast guy,” defensive end John Abraham said.
“They use screens and a lot of things to get him the ball. You would think the rookie (Mark Ingram) would be doing stuff in there, but you see Sproles in the red zone really getting a lot of touches.”
Brees is having one of the best seasons of his remarkable career. He is the first NFL passer with 3,000 yards in the first nine games of a season and has thrown a TD pass in 36 straight games to tie Brett Favre for the league’s second-longest streak.
“The thing is when we get to him we’ve got to get him down,” said Abraham, a four-time Pro Bowl selection. “He’ll throw the ball in any situation. He’ll flip in the backfield. He’ll do a lot of different things to get the ball out of his hands. We’ve got to wrap him up when we get to him.”
Sproles’ numbers are impressive, too. After spending his first six seasons with San Diego, Sproles leads the NFL with 9,759 all-purpose yards since 2007. He’s on pace to break New Orleans’ single-season record for a running back (Reggie Bush had 88 catches for 742 yards in 2006).
At 5-foot-6, 190 pounds, Sproles zips through the backfield as elusively as he runs through coverage units on special teams. His 1,499 all-purpose yards lead the NFL this season.
For Lofton, it was already hard enough trying to defend a New Orleans scheme that includes tight end Jimmy Graham, running back Pierre Thomas and receivers Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem and Lance Moore.
Brees doesn’t give a defense much time to attack the pocket.
“He sets (his feet) short and gets the ball out of his hand quick, so our pass rush is going to have to get there and knock him off point,” Lofton said. “We may not get sacks, but we can’t let him sit back there and have all that time.
“We’ve got to mix up our coverages. It can’t just be sitting ducks for him.”
Abraham said the Falcons (5-3) have improved their tackling since starting the season poorly. They can’t afford to be fundamentally weak against the Saints (6-3).
“Even in the playoff loss (last season) against Green Bay, we were blitzing,” Abraham said. “We just weren’t getting them down, and I think it ended up biting us in a big way. This year I think people are a lot more confident blitzing, and I think they understand what they have to do.”
Defending the Saints on third down will be critical. New Orleans’ 55.7 percentage ranks second in the league. Atlanta’s defense ranks 24th.
Lofton knows how important it is to avoid getting frustrated. The Falcons’ defensive captain estimates that Atlanta had 10 free runs at Brees in a Week 16 home defeat last season, finishing with just one sack.
There was some satisfaction in causing Brees to throw two interceptions, but not nearly enough.
“We definitely want to get him a little antsy back there,” Lofton said. “He has a tendency to move around and extend plays. Sometimes that works out for him, and sometimes it’s been good for us. We definitely want to keep that going this year. He’s an elusive guy. Then again, Sproles is, too. It’s going to be a tough matchup, but we’re a confident team right now.”