You'll hear a lot of stats and trends leading up to Sunday's Falcons-Saints matchup, but really the only thing that matters is what happened last. In the "what have you done for me lately" world of the NFL, your last game is what you are. In the case of Falcons-Saints, the recent memory is Week 13's 23-13 Falcons win.
In that game, the Falcons continued a run last season of playing some of their best games against some of the highest caliber of quarterback the league has to offer. They intercepted Saints quarterback Drew Brees five times and knocked away 12 more. Holding Brees to no touchdowns ended Brees' NFL record of 54 games straight with a touchdown pass.
A repeat performance like that against Brees and Sean Payton, the Saints' returning-from-suspension head coach, would make a statement in the season opener. The Falcons defense has done it once, so they know they can do it again. They also think they picked up some new things in the week preparing for that game along with what they left on the field.
"I think last year, that second game, we really figured out their philosophy as an offense and what they like to do, how they like to do it and out of what sets," Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud said. "I think we really picked up and took that knowledge to another level in that second game. If we can build on that, I think we'll have an even better performance."
What worked against Brees was a combination of things, but primarily they were able to capitalize on the mistakes Brees made. They even did it without a ton of sacks and that lesson is a good one for those that continue to disagree with the notion that sacks are the only type of statistical pressure that matters. Against Brees in that second game last season, the Falcons only sacked the QB once. More encouraging is the six hits they were able to put on Brees. There was pressure beyond that that didn't show up in the box score, but it was there and it created opportunities to make plays for the Falcons secondary, something they did in abundance, led by William Moore's two interceptions.
Moore said while the sacks weren't there, the pressure was and it got Brees moving, which started their pick party.
"It was one of those things where we got Drew out of the pocket," Moore said. "He's a great mobile QB and you can't take that from him, but that also limited his time to sit back in the pocket. He'll pick you apart if you let him sit back there. If he's on the move, you can jump some routes coming from the backside where he can't see you."
Atlanta's secondary played a great game of coverage against Brees that evening. DeCoud thought the coverage by the secondary was tight and they were able to make plays when they were presented. Although the sack totals weren't there, the Falcons defense applied the pressure, speeding up Brees' reads, forcing him into mistakes. Further, DeCoud admitted playing at home had the intensity of the players at a fever pitch and they know they'll need to bring a similar level of intensity this week, home or not.
Playing the Saints in the first game of the regular season creates interesting challenges. On the one hand the Falcons think they know the Saints relatively well because of the close history they share, but on the other hand the return of Payton and the lack of preseason game film make things a bit of an unknown. Much of the success for the Falcons in last year's game came in an intense week of film study for the defense, Moore said.
"Most of the things that worked last year came from film study as far as things that Drew does that we picked up," the safety said. "It's things we picked up from Drew and the receivers and things they did."
Of course the Saints will show and try some new things this week, but much of their past success has come from doing what works for them repeatedly. As DeCoud said Thursday, you don't become one of the most dangerous offenses by doing different things each week. That kind of knowledge could help the Falcons repeat their own most recent success against the Saints.