FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- On a short week of practice, the Falcons must rebound from a tough loss against the Vikings and prepare for another strong division opponent in the New Orleans Saints.
The Saints (9-3) boast one of the league's top offenses and their defense has been one of the turnaround stories of the year. This rivalry matchup could have major playoff implications for the Falcons, and coach Dan Quinn has expressed his desire to see Mercedes-Benz Stadium as loud as it's ever been. If people need to take off the next day at work to make that happen, he’s willing to help.
Let's dive into this week's key matchup.
KEY MATCHUP: Falcons' open-field tackling vs. Saints backs in space
While not technically a matchup in the traditional sense of the word, Thursday night could depend on the Falcons' ability to tackle soundly on defense.
Through the first 12 weeks of the season, Pro Football Focus tracked that rookie running back Alvin Kamara forced 40 missed tackles on just 131 touches. His elusive rating of 122.9 was the highest in the NFL in that time.
Both Kamara and starting running back Mark Ingram have formed a duo that really drives this Saints' offense in 2017, and they've proven to be a difficult matchup for any defender in space. The pair have combined to rush for over 100 yards in every game since Week 4, recently cruising for 145 yards and three touchdowns on the ground against Carolina.
The Falcons' defense is built to rally around a ball carrier in space and stop him for a minimal gain. That aspect of Atlanta's defense will be tested on Thursday night, as the Saints' running backs are adept at turning a 4-yard gain into a 12-yard run by slipping through tackles.
"It's going to be an open-field tackle game," Falcons defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel said when previewing the matchup. "It goes back to the screens again, you've got to tackle in the open field. I know it's a short week and all of those things but, guess what? It's football at the end of the day, and we have to tackle really well to be successful."
Five more things to know about Falcons-Saints 1. Saints' defense has developed a pass rush
Not since 2013 – the last year New Orleans went to the playoffs – have the Saints finished higher than 25th in total sacks on defense. Last season, the Saints finished 27th in that category, sacking the quarterback just 30 times.
New Orleans has already surpassed that number in 2017 and currently has 33 sacks on the year, which ties the Saints for seventh in the NFL. Cameron Jordan is the leader for the Saints in that category with 10 sacks thus far, but they have seven different players with multiple sacks and 12 players who have registered at least one sack this season. 2. Falcons' secondary expected to be intact
Despite missing Brian Poole and Desmond Trufant in the secondary, the Falcons didn't allow many explosive plays in the passing game against the Vikings. New Orleans is better equipped to attack Atlanta through the air, but it appears that all hands will be on deck for the Falcons’ secondary.
Trufant has passed through the NFL's concussion protocol and has been practicing with the team since Monday, and Poole was listed as a full participant in the Falcons' last practice before the game. 3. Drew Brees is still doing Drew Brees things
Although a lot of attention has been paid to the Saints' run game, they also have a pretty decent quarterback on the roster. Drew Brees is currently leading all NFL quarterbacks with a 71.5 percent completion rate and his 3,298 passing yards are third-most through the first 13 weeks.
Part of the reason New Orleans' run game has been so devastating is because of Brees. It's not so easy to put eight men in the box when a future Hall of Fame quarterback is also in the backfield and playing at a high level. 4. Warrick Dunn going into the Ring of Honor
During halftime of Thursday night's game, former running back Warrick Dunn will become the 10th member of the Falcons Ring of Honor.
Dunn signed with the Falcons as a free agent in 2002 and spent six seasons with the team. During his time in Atlanta, Dunn gained 5,981 rushing yards – fourth-most in Falcons history – and 30 touchdowns while averaging 4.2 yards per carry. He caught 204 passes during his career with the Falcons – second-most among running backs in franchise history – for 1,635 yards – third-most among Atlanta running backs – and six touchdowns. 5. Falcons hold lead in series rivalry
The Falcons-Saints rivalry is the oldest in the NFC South and one of the most competitive in the NFL. Dating back to 2008, when Matt Ryan was drafted, 12 of the 18 games between these two teams have been decided by one possession, with three going into overtime. Atlanta holds a 51-45 lead in the all-time series, which dates back to 1967, and the Falcons have won four of the last six games against the Saints.