METAIRIE, La. (AP) — The New Orleans Saints’ defense has led the team’s playoff push.
The Saints (8-8) have won three of their past four as the defense dominated the Jets, shut out Tom Brady and the Buccaneers and held Carolina scoreless for the final 43 minutes last week.
That last victory kept the team’s postseason hopes alive going into the regular-season finale at Atlanta on Sunday. If the Saints win and the Rams defeat the 49ers, New Orleans will be in the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season.
But the Saints know they will have to do a better job of defending Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ offense than they did in the first meeting this season.
Ryan passed for a season-high 343 yards and two touchdowns as the Falcons beat the Saints 27-25 on Nov. 7 in the Superdome. That loss started a five-game losing streak that preceded New Orleans’ current surge.
The Saints took their only lead of the game — at 25-24 — with 61 seconds remaining, but Ryan’s 64-yard pass to Cordarrelle Patterson set up Younghoe Koo’s winning 29-yard field goal as time expired.
It was the fourth completion of at least 30 yards in the game by Ryan, who was 23 of 30 and didn’t turn the ball over.
“We felt like we mixed it up pretty good defensively,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “We let one get over our head.”
Payton expects the Saints to have a better idea of what the Falcons will do as they face first-year head coach Arthur Smith, a former Titans offensive coordinator, for a second time.
“The offense changed, obviously, with the coaching staff change,” Payton said. “And we felt like, and we still do when you watch it, the rhythm and timing of the passing game is a half count to a full count quicker, as far as the routes and where (Ryan) is going with the football, and that’s just an offensive change.”
Ryan has been sacked 37 times this season and Atlanta has allowed a league-worst 83 pressures. Ryan was sacked five times in a 29-15 loss at Buffalo last week, the eighth time this season he has been sacked at least three times.
The Saints sacked him just twice as the 36-year-old regularly avoided the rush and even ran for a 1-yard touchdown.
“He’s always been able to flush from the pocket,” Payton said. “If you go way back, he’s been one of those guys that climbs heavy off of those naked boots and gets the ball downfield and so a lot of it’s dependent on who he’s had running the offense for him. But he’ll climb up and then peel off for 10 yards on third down easily. He’s a good athlete.”
Ryan hasn’t always been that successful at avoiding the Saints’ pass rushers, especially end Cameron Jordan, who has been dominant the past three weeks. Jordan has 7 1/2 of his 11 1/2 sacks this season in that time and was the NFC defensive player of the week after the wins against the Bucs and the Panthers.
Jordan has 22 of his 106 sacks against the Ryan, the highest total for one defender against one quarterback in the NFL since sacks became an official statistic in 1982, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
“He’s a great player,” Smith said of Jordan. “He’s been a good player in this league for a long time. We’ve got a ton of respect for him. The simple answer is we’ve got to find way to block him because he can wreck the game. We’ll do our damndest to make sure he’s accounted for on every play.”
Jordan sacked Ryan once in the November meeting and his resurgence has coincided with the return to health of fellow end Marcus Davenport and the return of three backup linemen from the reserve/COVID-19 list.
“I think it’s helped everyone out,” tackle David Onyemata said. “Going into the game, knowing you can’t double-team someone the entire game, having to account for other players, has been a big thing for everyone.”
After Jordan sacked Brady twice and forced him to fumble in the Saints’ 9-0 victory last month, Jordan dismissed the suggestion it might have been his best game, citing the four sacks he had of Ryan in a Saints victory on Thanksgiving 2019.
He’ll try to add to his record total against Ryan on Sunday.
“Cam has been playing legendary, for sure,” linebacker Kwon Alexander said. “He’s been going crazy.”
AP Sports Writer Charles Odum contributed from Atlanta.
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