METAIRIE, La. — When the 2011 NFL regular season came to a close, the Atlanta Falcons were 10-6, a record most teams would gladly take.
They were No. 10 in total offense and No. 12 in total defense and fifth in the league in turnover differential.
Yet, the Falcons entered 2012 with two new coordinators after Brian VanGorder left to take over the defense at Auburn and Mike Mularkey became the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
In came Dirk Koetter to run the offense and Mike Nolan to run the defense and in both situations, the team’s important numbers improved.
Eight games into this season, the Falcons are 8-0, boasting an offense that puts up 27.5 points per game while allowing just 17.9. Both numbers are four points better than a season ago, when Atlanta’s point differential was just two points in a 5-3 start.
On Sunday at noon, the Saints (3-5) will try to become the first team to know off the Falcons this season. And while New Orleans has won 10 of the past 12 games against Atlanta, this year’s version is different because of the coordinators.
“I think these new coordinators came in there and really energized this football team,” acting Saints head coach Joe Vitt said. “I think both coordinators have done a good job playing to the strength of the personnel that they acquired.”
Atlanta’s offense has done it by allowing quarterback Matt Ryan to play freer. The Falcons have gone from ground-and-pound to an air-based attack and Ryan, in his fifth season has thrived.
He’s No. 3 in the league in quarterback rating at 103.0 as well as completion percentage (68.9). Of quarterbacks who have thrown at least 250 passes this season, only five have thrown fewer than Ryan’s six interceptions.
He’s taking advantage of his targets. Tight end Tony Gonzalez is ninth in the league with 50 receptions, putting up 495 yards and four touchdowns on those catches. Receiver Roddy White is 11th with 47 receptions, putting up 709 yards and four more scores. And receiver Julio Jones is 14th in the league with 628 yards and five touchdowns.
“Matt Ryan is really taking control of this offense and using all the weapons that they’ve drafted and brought in to help him out and I think he’s doing a great job of it,” Saints safety Roman Harper said. “That’s the reason they’re 8-0. That, and the fact that they’re not turning the ball over and they’ve been very opportunistic defensively in making big plays.”
The Falcons have taken the ball away two more times through eight games than they did in 2011 and have given it up six fewer times. And while the defense is giving up 14½ more yards per game, the offense is gaining nearly 30 yards more.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees has seen the evolution of the Falcons defense, seeing as much Nolan in as he is head coach Mike Smith.
“This seems to be a blend of their philosophies and kind of the best of both,” Brees said. “Obviously the personnel are the same in any divisional opponent, (where) you’re somewhat used to the personnel.”
He added, “You definitely can see some new twists to what they’re doing.”
Cornerback Thomas DeCoud is tied for third in the NFL with four interceptions while defensive end John Abraham is 10th in the league with seven sacks. Defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux has another 3½ sacks.
Abraham is the concern for Brees.
“They move him around anyway, so I’m sure they’ll have a plan where he continues to do what he’s always done, which is wreak havoc if you allow it,” Brees said. “He’s one of the elite pass rushers in this league, (and) still is after his 13th year. It’s pretty impressive.”
All of that has led to the undefeated record, one that includes five wins in games decided by 10 or fewer points.
“They’re extremely confident,” Vitt said. “They’ve won some tight football games. They’re executing extremely well. They’re not shooting themselves in the foot with needless penalties. They’re winning the turnover takeaway battle. So there’s a reason they’re on a roll.”