FLOWERY BRANCH - Matt Ryan usually spends his off days during the season watching film at the Falcons' team headquarters.
With the specter of facing Saints safety Darren Sharper, Atlanta's second-year quarterback is grateful to have an extra day before visiting New Orleans on Monday night.
'He's got great football instincts, and my guess is he's very meticulous in the film room, and he studies, because that shows up,' Ryan said Thursday. 'That's evident when you watch tape on him.'
Sharper's 60 career interceptions, including an NFL-leading six this year, are worrisome enough. But the 13-year veteran has also scored 11 touchdowns off those picks, second only to Hall of Fame inductee Rod Woodson.
Ryan, who's coming off consecutive games with a pair of interceptions for the first time in his career, knows his challenge extends beyond Sharper. The Saints' 18 takeaways are tied with Philadelphia for the league lead, and Ryan feels fortunate Atlanta has lost just two of its seven fumbles over the last three games.
'Any time you lose the turnover battle in this league, it's tough to come back and win games,' Ryan said. 'So that's my focus this week, to be better with the football, but at the same time you can't lose that aggressiveness. You have to continue to go out there and try to make plays.'
Last week's 37-21 loss at Dallas marked just the second time in his career (and the first since a Week 2 defeat at Tampa Bay as a rookie) that Ryan was sacked four times and threw two picks. Before facing the Cowboys, Ryan had made 143 passing attempts - a stretch of 18 straight quarters - without taking a sack.
He will need a nearly flawless performance from left tackle Sam Baker and right tackle Tyson Clabo at the Superdome. Saints defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith have combined for 6.5 sacks, 30 tackles, one fumble, one interception and two passes defended.
Against New Orleans (6-0), the Falcons (4-2) also must restore some consistent big plays from Pro Bowl running back Michael Turner, who's averaging just 3.4 yards per carry to rank 24th in the NFL among players with at least 70 attempts.
It hasn't helped that fullback Ovie Mughelli has missed two games with a calf injury and was limited in practice Thursday.
Turner's backup, Jerious Norwood, is still sidelined with a hip flexor and expected to miss this week, too. Jason Snelling filled Norwood's spot against the Cowboys and averaged 9.7 yards on seven carries. Unfortunately, Snelling didn't practice Thursday because of a sore hamstring.
'Well, we are not going to make excuses, but we like to have our first-line players out there,' coach Mike Smith said, 'and I think Ovie is an outstanding blocking back and in our two-back running game he's a big, big part of it.'
Ryan puts the onus on himself to make the offense efficient, but Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez believes the Falcons must do a better job in running better routes and improving their blocking techniques.
'We've obviously got to play better in all phases,' Gonzalez said. 'I don't think it's one particular thing. We came out and had a good first quarter (at Dallas). The opening drive was good. The defense had two three-and-outs in a row, but we've just got to keep momentum going, if anything.'
And the Falcons will need to keep a close eye on Sharper.
'We just need to do a better job, man to man, and for me that's getting the guys in the right call and making sure I'm carrying out my reads,' Ryan said, 'so we can try and bust one open.'