FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- In his team's 31-27 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Nov. 11, Falcons left cornerback Asante Samuel was one of the primary reasons the game was as close as it was.
However, this week the Falcons must prepare for quarterback Drew Brees and a Saints' passing attack that has flustered them many times in the recent past with the possibility -- at best -- that Samuel might not play all of the defensive plays.
At worst, in a shortened week -- the game is on Thursday at the Georgia Dome -- the Falcons might have to wonder about the status of Samuel, who has suffered from an injured shoulder in recent weeks.
The Falcons held a walkthrough on Monday, not a practice, and so head coach Mike Smith gave an injury report based on the hypothetical concept of which players would or would not have practiced. Samuel was listed as not participating.
Smith noted that Samuel's shoulder has improved, as he played only 16 snaps in Nov. 18's 23-19 win over Arizona and that last week he played 49 of 57 snaps (86 percent). A four-time Pro-Bowler with 47 career interceptions, Samuel dropped two passes that appeared as if they might have been definite interceptions if he were healthy in Sunday's 24-23 win over Tamp Bay. On those occasions when he made a play on the ball, he winced visibly in pain and, at times, had to leave the game.
One factor that will be different for this game is that the last two weeks Samuel had a full week of rest to recover after games. He will not have that luxury this week. Some have suggested that the NFL should offer teams bye weeks prior to playing on Thursdays but Smith would not concern himself with that debate on Monday.
"Well, you can't worry about it because that's how the schedule's set," he said. "I think the thing that's the big advantage is that if you do get through that short week you get the extra time and it basically gives you another bye week and that's how you've got to approach it. You've got to suck it up, so to speak, for a couple of days and we've changed our schedule, obviously. We've been planning on this for two weeks in terms of the volume of practice, snaps and what we've done so it's not something that just pops out and we've got to go and do it. I think we've done a nice job of preparing for it in the past."
In this season's earlier loss to the Saints, the Falcons had six stops on defense not including the final possession of the game when the Saints killed the final 12 seconds by taking a knee. Samuel was responsible for two of those with an interception and a pass break-up on a third-down situation.
Smith realizes how important the 31-year-old is and also what he's been playing through, saying that Samuel has been "battling through the injury."
"He's a really tough guy in terms of his pain tolerance and we're going to get him as much rest as we can over the next couple of days and get him as healthy as we can to play on Thursday night," Smith said.
Whether or not Samuel can play -- or for however many snaps he is available -- the Falcons will have to do some things differently this time around. For one, they have to pressure Brees, who threw two interceptions for touchdowns in the Saints' loss to San Francisco 31-21.
"We're going to have to put a lot of pressure on the quarterback," Smith said. "If he's in the pocket and it's like a (7-on-7 passing) drill, he's going to find the open guy."
Another is that the Falcons will have to finish on the positive side of the turnover ratio, which has proved a struggle for weeks.
"Well, we've been flat really the last four games," Smith said. "When I say flat, we have not been creating the turnovers. I think they're like sacks -- they come in bunches sometimes. I don't think they're over-rated like sacks. Turnovers are very important. But we have not been able to create the turnovers and we've not done the job we'd like to do in terms of the offense holding onto the ball and that's why we've been on the minus side on the last two weeks in the ratio."