AtlantaFalcons.com contributing writer Daniel Cox takes a listen to Wednesday's conference calls with the Atlanta media from New Orleans head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees to break down what the opposing team is saying and thinking as it heads into a crucial game against the Falcons on Sunday.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. —Entering Sunday's game between the Falcons and the New Orleans Saints, few would think the two team's offenses would be on par with each other.
Last season, the Saints vaulted themselves into near-legendary status with an offense that led the league in yards per game and points per game.
Through two games in 2010, many of the two franchises' offensive statistics mirror the other, and there's a few key ones where the Falcons have the edge.
The Falcons and the Saints have possession averages within one minute of each other and their net passing yards per game are within 3 yards of the other.
The Falcons, led by quarterback Matt Ryan, lead the Saints in points per game with 25 to the Saints' 19.5. They also hold a healthy edge in total yards per game with 369.5 to New Orleans' 297.5.
During Wednesday's Atlanta media conference call with Saints quarterback Drew Brees and head coach Sean Payton, the name of Ryan came up a few times.
Brees, who many would argue is the NFL's best quarterback, said the young Ryan has caught his eye.
"I have been following him," Brees said Wednesday afternoon. "I have a lot of respect for Matt. I think he's a very talented young player, who seems like he's very much a student of the game as well. He wants to be great so he's doing all the little things just to work towards that."
Brees, whose first season as a starter in 2002 had some down moments but also showed glimpses of the abilities he's shown in the last six seasons, believes quarterback is a position that requires significant patience and study. He sees what's needed to be elite in Ryan.
"You see his progress here over the last few years," Brees said. "I haven't seen a whole lot of him early on this season, but obviously for a quarterback in this league there's a learning curve and just a maturation process that you have to go through. He's a guy that had success very early on. He continues to get better."
Payton mentioned Ryan in relation to the early success wide receiver Roddy White has had on his way to 20 receptions in two games, tied for the most in the NFL.
Payton spoke of the quarterback's confidence in his receiver and the timing the two have developed early on this season.
Brees felt some of the experience around Ryan on the offense, players like White who is in his sixth season, has been helpful as Ryan rises in the NFL.
"I think he's got pretty good veteran influence around him there, offensively," Brees said. "Guys like Tony Gonzalez, Roddy White, Justin Peelle, who is a tight end I played with in San Diego and I think highly of him. He's got all the tools and it seems like mentally too he's very sharp. You can tell that he studies the game and wants to be a great player."
West Coast swing: It's the third week of the season and the Saints have yet to find much a rhythm or routine.
Charged with opening the season on a Thursday night against the Vikings in Week 1, New Orleans went 10 days before they played again — Monday night's win over the San Francisco 49ers.
It's been a hectic few weeks, but Brees feels the team has taken it in stride, but they're still looking forward to a Sunday game for a change.
"It's been kind of crazy, but I feel like we've adjusted well," Brees said. "It's nice to be able to get back to playing Sunday games again. Kind of getting back into your in-week routine and not have to adjust it. This being a short week, we have to adjust it somewhat. I'm glad to be playing on Sunday again. "
Playing on Monday night always makes for a short week, it becomes even shorter when your game is on the West Coast. After playing late into the evening Monday night, the team didn't arrive home until a few hours before the sun came up on Tuesday.
Payton shared that the coaching staff will work quickly this week.
"We backed up (Wednesday's) practice, shortened it a little bit," he said. "I think the key is, No. 1, in game planning and, No. 2, the early portion of the week becomes the challenge more than anything else when you lose time coming back."
As the Super Bowl champs, they've found more than a few games like this on their schedule. In addition to the first two weeks of the season, New Orleans has a Week 8 matchup against the Steelers on Sunday night, a Thanksgiving Day game against Dallas, and a Week 16 rematch on Monday night with the Falcons.
Payton feels it's a tough draw, but it means your franchise is performing at a high level. While a schedule like what he has can be a challenging, it's part of your goal every season.
"I think part of that comes with winning," he said. "When we came here in '06, I think every game of ours was at 12 noon or 1 o'clock. We had the one Monday night game. That's the result of losing. So when you do start having success I think you find yourself playing on some of those time slots."
Pressure package:One of the maxims around the league to beating the Saints is to bring quick pressure on the quarterback and to stay physical.
Brees and Payton both see Atlanta's defense evolving into one that is perhaps best designed to defeat what they do best.
"They've played very well these first two weeks, against Pittsburgh and then obviously Arizona last week," Brees said. "You see them pressuring quite a bit, making a lot of plays. They've always played a pretty aggressive style and they're flying around. Definitely we're going to have to do a great job this week offensively of handling that pressure and just the overall execution on our part."
Atlanta's numbers from last season in two contests with the Saints don't show a lot of success when Brees is sacked. In the Week 8 game, a 35-27 win by the Saints, Atlanta brought down Brees twice.
But in Week 14's 26-23 Saints win, an even closer game, the Falcons didn't sack Brees at all.
But Payton feels the speed on defense and their attacking style, reaching Brees or not, make them a challenge for his offense.
"Well certainly when you watch them they've got exceptional team speed," Payton said. "They run to the ball, they're very aggressive. They give you a lot of looks and aren't afraid to pressure you. We saw pressure a lot last year in both our games. So certainly when you watch the early part of this season you see the same thing again."
Missing speed:Both franchises lost two integral parts of their offense in Week 2, two running backs with similar skill sets.
The Saints lost Reggie Bush in the fourth quarter Monday night. He broke his leg as he tried to recover a muffed punt. Reports around the league say the tailback will miss 4-6 weeks.
Jerious Norwood tore his ACL on Sunday returning the game's opening kickoff. On Tuesday, the team announced he would miss the remainder of the season.
Both backs can utilize their speed in the offense to create matchup problems out of the backfield in the passing game or as shifty runners in the ground game.
Payton said replacing Bush in his offense will be a similar task to what Atlanta will have to do after losing Norwood.
"I don't know that you replace him," Payton said. "I think your packages change, probably as similar as it would in Atlanta with Norwood. There's certain things you do and certain things that maybe you stay away from without the player."
With Bush out of the lineup, the Saints will rely on some unique role players like wideout Lance Moore and tight end David Thomas to attempt to replace some of what Bush did. Brees feels like one player may not be able to fulfill what Bush added.
"It's tough because obviously we do a lot of things with Reggie," the quarterback said. "We've had times before when he's been out of our lineup and other guys have just had to step up and fill that role, fill that void. It might not necessarily be the running back position. It's more opportunities for the tight ends, the wide receivers, every body has to pick up that slack."
Southern familiarity:The Saints and the Falcons know each other well.
New Orleans entered the league one year after the Falcons did and they've had a strong rivalry ever since.
While the Falcons hold a 44-37 edge over the Saints in the all-time regular season record, the Saints have had the Falcons' number in the past few seasons, beating them three straight times.
The games have been contested and Brees believes facing a NFC South division foe like Atlanta twice a year and the familiarity that comes with it makes every game a tough one.
"Obviously, we have to take what we see on film, take what we know about players from a personal standpoint and try to create matchups," he said. "But you never really know how the game's going to shake out until you actually get there on Sunday and see how they're trying to play you."
Atlanta head coach Mike Smith has never lost four straight while he's been with the Falcons. This year, the familiarity with the Saints may be just the edge they need to pull out a victory for the first time in over a season and a half.
Battle of turnovers:It's often considered "coach speak," but it's hard to argue that the team that wins the battle of turnovers wins the game.
Entering the third game of the season, both teams are currently in the top-ten in the NFL in turnover margin.
Payton sees a heightened focus league wide in being ultra aggressive in tackling the ball carrier in an attempt to force turnovers.
"I think the one thing we've seen in our league in the last eight to ten years is the emphasis placed on tackling the ball and ball disruptions," Payton said. "I had this conversation just recently with a coach. Teams now do such a good job of really emphasizing that. The ball carrier, the receiver, the tight end, the running back, all those players that have the ball in their hands, are certainly more mindful of it. We were able to come up with four turnovers Monday night and that was big in our win. One thing that hasn't changed is that statistic still wins and loses games."
The Falcons are 11-1 under Smith when they force more turnovers than they give up.