Originally posted on Fox Sports South  |  Last updated 11/10/11
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- To paraphrase the clich, when the Falcons host New Orleans on Sunday with first place in the NFC South on the line, they know they cannot stop Saints quarterback Drew Brees, but they will have to find a way to contain him -- and hit him and harass him. In the Falcons' first meeting with Brees last season, he completed 78.9 percent of his passes for 365 yards and three touchdowns -- and lost. That was because the Falcons picked off Brees twice and sacked him twice and won in overtime 27-24. The second time around, Brees was only slightly less efficient, completing passes at a 71-percent clip for fewer yards (302) and fewer touchdowns (1) with the same number of interceptions, but the Falcons only sacked him once in a 17-14 loss. That proved their death knell, as Falcons head coach Mike Smith lamented the next day the large number of "clear lanes" that his pass-rushers had on the elusive Brees yet failed to bring him down. It goes without saying that if the Falcons don't hit or sack Brees enough, their chances of winning diminish greatly. Smith said he thinks the Falcons have improved in that area this season, which was a stated goal in the offseason. "I don't think we've had as many missed opportunities as we had there in the end of the season and we're talking about the game last year," Smith said. "I think our guys have done a nice job to this point. Again, the quarterback that has that sense of when heat is coming and can step away, that's one of the things that I think is one of Drew Brees' strengths is that he can avoid pressure and can avoid sacks and he can get the ball out of his hands. "He's completing almost 71 percent of his passes right now. They're the number one team in the NFL in third-down efficiency, so to me, that's going to be the big challenge in our pass defense." The Falcons rank 19th in the NFL pass defense, allowing 245.3 per game. The curious part about Brees since his incredible 2009 season in which he led the Saints to the Super Bowl is his propensity to throw interceptions. He has 11 so far this season in nine games (to go with 21 touchdowns) and in the final 14 regular season games of 2010 he threw 22. That's 33 in 23 games. The Saints stand at minus-6 in turnover differential, 26th in the NFL. Saints coach Sean Payton said Brees' interceptions are a function of team play. "I think when you take a player like Drew Brees and when there's a game where all of a sudden the turnovers are not up to his standard or our standard, there's probably a number of contributing factors," Payton said. "The challenge of playing quarterback in our league today is carried not just by the quarterback. It's carried by the guys up front blocking, your ability to have some balance running the football. All those things can contribute to his success or the adversity he might face, so I think the key thing for us -- we did this a week ago -- is to keeping ourselves into manageable third-down situations. "Playing good defense contributes to a quarterback that has less pressure on him per se each snap so we're always trying to pay attention to how can we help in protection, how can we have that balance we're striving for?" Payton said that regardless of any adversity that Brees faces, it does not carry over from one series to the next. The Falcons' goal is to try to make it carry over. Thus far, the Saints have allowed 19 sacks after only 25 last year and that comes despite having the NFL's ninth-ranked running game. Clearly, it would seem the Saints are having protection issues. "I just think some teams have been able to pressure him a little bit better than in past years," said Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud, who has three interceptions this season. "He's been moved off the spot a little bit more this year and I think it may have gotten to him a little bit. He's not as comfortable as he was in the pocket in past years." In past years, the Falcons have tried a variety of tactics to stop Brees, including dropping back into coverage on occasions and blitzing on others. Brees was asked how he thought the Falcons might approach this game. "That's the chess match, you know," he said. "I'm sure they're going to have some wrinkles for us just like we'll have some wrinkles for them. Especially with a divisional opponent, you feel like you're very familiar with each other, so it always makes for a great game. Especially going on the road playing there, they play so well at home. "For us, I think it's all about execution and protecting the ball and being able to mix the run and the pass and having balance and just kind of seeing how the game plays out." Especially protecting the ball.
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