Bradley Handwerger / Eyewitness Sports
METAIRIE, La. ― The last image most fans likely have of the Sept. 26 Saints-Falcons game is that of Atlanta kicker Matt Bryant slicing a 46-yard field goal through the uprights, spiking a dagger in the hearts of New Orleans fans everywhere.
And while Bryant’s kick combined with Garrett Hartley’s miss from 29 yards sealed New Orleans’ fate in a 27-24 overtime loss that Sunday, there were bigger things at play.
Like, Atlanta rushing for 202 total yards, including Michael Turner’s 114-yard output, while holding onto the ball for nearly 63 percent of the game’s nearly 75 minutes.
Or the Falcons converting 9 of 18 third downs and 2 of 3 fourth downs.
Monday night in the Georgia Dome, the Saints (10-4) have a chance to make amends against the Falcons (12-2) all while keeping alive slim hopes of winning the NFC South. A win also secures a playoff berth in back-to-back seasons for the first time since the early 1990s.
But to do that, the Saints will have to stop a rushing attack that’s ranked 7th in the NFL and they’ll have to do it a week after giving up 208 yards on the ground to Baltimore.
That means corralling the slippery and hard to tackle Turner, who is fifth in the NFL with 1,256 yards and 11 touchdowns on 300 carries.
“One thing about Michael Turner is that he has very good pad level and he runs with that,” Saints Head Coach Sean Payton said. “He’s a hard target; I heard the expression that you have his shoulder pads and then all of a sudden, there are his shins.”
Atlanta left that game as the league’s No. 6 total offense and enters this one as No. 12. Meanwhile, the Saints have the NFL’s 19th-ranked run defense, giving up 117 yards on the ground per game.
Turner has 98 runs of 10 or more yards since joining Atlanta in 2008 and that includes 13 runs this season of 15 yards or more.
The key to halting the run game, strong safety Roman Harper said, is up front in the trenches.
“We’ve just got to dominate the line of scrimmage,” said Harper, who finished the first game with seven tackles. “We’ve got to win up front. That’s where it all starts. It’s not always in the back end. But we’ve got to understand what they’re going to try to do to attack us and try to counteract that. D-line, we’ve got to play big for us, and linebackers have to run and hit.”
Yet, it’s not just Turner the Saints have to stop. In the September game, the Falcons converted three straight third downs in overtime, helping the offense move from the Atlanta 20 to the New Orleans 23 all while eating 7:02 off the clock.
In fact, Atlanta was 7 of 10 on third down on its five scoring drives throughout the game.
“You’ve got to get off the field on third down,” Saints defensive end Alex Brown said. “We’ve got to win some third-and-shorts. With this team right here we’re coming up playing, we’ve got to win some fourth-and-shorts because they’ll go for it on fourth down. We’ve got to be ready to play all four downs. And we’ve got to win.”