Falcon defender William Moore, right, celebrates an interception against the Panthers on Dec. 11. Atlanta will be facing a Saints' passing attack that has been nearly flawless this season.
FLOWERY BRANCH — A week after manhandling Jacksonville rookie Blaine Gabbert, the Falcons must defend the NFL’s hottest quarterback.
Nothing comes easily for Atlanta against Drew Brees.
The New Orleans Saints have won six straight, including a 26-23 overtime victory against the Falcons five weeks ago. It came as no surprise that Brees played a nearly flawless game, improving to 9-2 in the NFC South rivalry with 3,332 yards passing and 22 touchdowns.
Falcons cornerback Brent Grimes, who picked off Brees in Atlanta’s overtime win last year at New Orleans, understands the difficulties of defending his loaded receiving corps.
“He throws to everybody on the field, but he tends to go to mostly to (tight end Jimmy) Graham, (receiver Marques) Colston and (running back Darren) Sproles, so it’s hard to focus on one guy,” Grimes said. “That’s part of what makes them a great offense.”
Brees stands 305 yards shy of breaking Dan Marino’s NFL single-single passing record (5,084 yards in 1984) and needs 220 yards to reach 5,000 for the second time in his career. He can become just the second quarterback to pass that number twice.
As a matter of pride, Atlanta free safety Thomas DeCoud wants to keep Brees from breaking the NFL’s single-season mark against his team.
“You’ll see the highlight reels for the rest of your life,” DeCoud said. “For us to be successful, it’s just staying consistent, knowing what they’re going to and realizing they’re a concept offense. They’re going to give you the same concept, but just with different looks and window dressing, so we have to stay disciplined.”
Though the Falcons earned a narrow win last year at New Orleans, Brees and coach Sean Payton have beaten Atlanta in six of the last meetings in the Superdome. A victory by the Saints, who are 11-3 and have clinched a playoff spot, gives them the NFC South title. The Falcons (9-5) are still fighting to get in the postseason.
Strong safety William Moore likes Atlanta’s chances now that Grimes, an alternate Pro Bowl pick last season, is returning from a three-game absence following minor surgery on his right knee.
“He’s a leader in our secondary right now,” Grimes said. “It’s going to be huge having him back. (Dominique) Franks did a great job of stepping in recently, but it’s great having Grimes back because we can rotate a lot of defensive backs.”
Moore will draw plenty of assignments against Graham, New Orleans’ leading receiver. In the Saints’ Week 10 victory at the Georgia Dome, Graham had two drops, but he stayed patient and ended the game with seven catches for 82 yards and one touchdown.
“It’s going to be a big challenge for me this week, especially for me having to go man-to-man a lot against him,” Moore said. “I’m going to have my hands full all night.”
Atlanta has built a tough reputation of stopping the run first and using lots of zone coverage against the pass. The Saints rank eighth in rushing, and Atlanta ranks fourth, but the Falcons’ formula wasn’t good enough in the last game.
The Falcons held New Orleans, the NFL’s statistical leader in several offensive categories, to just 41 yards on just 16 rushing attempts, yet lost the game.
“We have to stay disciplined and also remember it’s a 60-minute game,” DeCoud said. “With an offense this good, you’re going to have to play for the full four quarters and overtime if necessary.”
Grimes says the Atlanta defense has moved past the residual disappointment from five weeks ago, when head coach Mike Smith decided in overtime to run on fourth-and-1 from the Falcons’ 29. Michael Turner was stopped for no gain, and John Kasay’s 26-yard field goal gave New Orleans the win.
Had Smith decided instead to punt, the Atlanta defense could have had a chance to stop the Saints in their territory.
Then again, that’s no easy task.
“We know coach Smith believes in us, but he also believes in our offense,” Grimes said. “He rolled the dice, and we came up short, but it wasn’t one play the decided the game. You can also say that had we stopped them at some point earlier in the game, we never would’ve gotten to point, but Drew Brees and his receivers are a big reason for that.”