New Orleans Saints: Harry Douglas

Marques Colston and Paul WorrilowAP PhotoPaul Worrilow, right, and the Falcons defense will try to slow down Marques Colston and the Saints.
Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith seemed annoyed by the question, but he answered it.

A reporter asked Smith this week if he is concerned about there being more New Orleans Saints fans than Falcons fans at the Georgia Dome on Thursday night.

"Absolutely not," Smith said. "Our fans, I think, are the best in the NFL. We've got a great record since we've been here in terms of winning football games. They've been very supportive. I know that they are disappointed and they are discouraged, but there's nobody more disappointed and discouraged … than us here in this building and on this football team.

"We certainly hope that they'll be out there supporting us this week. It's a big division game."

The matchup would be much more intriguing if the 2-8 Falcons were on pace with the 8-2 Saints. But that's a far-fetched scenario now.

ESPN.com Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure and Saints reporter Mike Triplett break down the NFC South clash:

McClure: Hey Mike, I know the Saints hold a decisive edge going into this game, but this is quite a rivalry and there is much hatred between the teams. Did any of the players give any specific examples of the bad blood that exists when these rivals collide?

Triplett: No one really mentioned bad blood, but we know it exists from past examples. And no one denies the passion that exists in these annual matchups, even on these rare occasions when one of the teams is out of the playoff race. A few Saints players compared it to a college rivalry, like Stanford-Cal, insisting that the records don't matter when they square off. I think they'd also like to exorcise a few demons from their ugly Thursday night performance at Atlanta last season, so the Falcons shouldn't cling to any hopes that this might be some sort of trap game for New Orleans.

Vaughn, I haven't watched the Falcons too closely this season, but I keep being surprised that the hole gets deeper and deeper (especially after last week's loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers). Any signs that they're close to putting things together?

McClure: I don't see the Falcons rebounding this season, not with the Saints, San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers still left on the schedule. They have to start building momentum for next season. I believe Coach Smith has already started the process by giving players such as center Joe Hawley, running back Antone Smith, tackle Ryan Schraeder and safety Zeke Motta more playing time. I wouldn't say that the Falcons are tanking it for a draft pick, but having a top-five selection has to be in their minds.

Smith talked about looking at scheme in terms of turning things around. I could see the Falcons running the ball more to balance out the offense. And defensively, they have to consider dialing up more blitzes to generate pressure, because the front four is not getting it done. They'll have a tough time contending with Drew Brees. Certainly Brees is itching for the opportunity to pick the Falcons apart, correct?

Triplett: Yes, Brees should be the Falcons' biggest concern, as usual. He's playing about as well as ever. Even when he hasn't been dominant throughout games, he's been clutch in the fourth quarter. And he's as competitive as it gets, so he certainly hasn't forgotten his shockingly bad performance at Atlanta last season (five interceptions).

I'm not sure it would do much good to blitz Brees. Three of his biggest throws this past week came when the 49ers blitzed. The best formula for slowing down the Saints passing game has been getting physical with receivers at the line of scrimmage to disrupt routes and playing solid man coverage.

The best news for Atlanta is that Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles are both a little banged up (Sproles' status is questionable). How will the Falcons match up against Graham in coverage?

McClure: In watching the last game between the teams, I saw at least three different defenders try to match up with Graham, and Graham had no problem going up against Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud. In fact, Graham scored a 7-yard touchdown after DeCoud was late getting over in coverage. It will be hard to match up one-on-one against a player as talented as Graham -- no matter if his foot and elbow are still bothering him -- so I could see some bracket coverage. But I will mention that linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who just returned to the lineup from a Lisfranc foot sprain, did an excellent job covering Graham on at least one play in Week 1. And I saw Weatherspoon working hard last week on his coverage skills coming off the injury.

Mike, I see the Saints lost cornerback Jabari Greer for the season with a torn ACL. The Falcons have Roddy White back somewhat healthy and have gotten great production from Harry Douglas. How will Greer's absence affect the Saints in terms of defending a capable receiving corps?

Triplett: That's a great question, because the Saints' play at cornerback has really been one of the underrated reasons for their success this season. Their top corner has been Keenan Lewis, who is playing at a Pro Bowl level and generally shadows the opponent's top receiver. But Greer has been very reliable as the other starter, allowing the Saints to trust those guys in single coverage quite a bit.

The Saints have decent depth behind Greer. They're going to be counting on second-year cornerback Corey White, who has shown a lot of promise but will likely face a few growing pains. His performance will be worth watching, because I'm sure the Falcons will test him out. Of course, it helps the Saints that they don't have Julio Jones to deal with, so they won't feel too sorry for themselves.

 
Steven Jackson, Mark IngramGetty ImagesSteven Jackson and Mark Ingram will try to bring more balance to two pass-heavy offenses.
Sean Payton is back to right the wrongs of last season, when his New Orleans Saints went off the rails in his absence. The first test of the season is a fitting one: The Saints open against their hated NFC South rivals, the Atlanta Falcons, who ran away with the division last season even though they split with New Orleans.

Have Payton and new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan fixed that horrid defense of a year ago? Will the Saints have much of a running game? Can the Falcons protect their franchise quarterback and give him time to find his myriad weapons?

ESPN.com NFL columnist Ashley Fox and NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas discuss what Saints and Falcons fans can expect from the latest installment of this heated rivalry.

Fox: He’s back. It is redemption time for Payton after missing a year because of the bounty scandal. I’m sure, given how beloved Payton is in New Orleans, that the Mercedes-Benz Superdome will be so loud it might lift off. I’ve seen different estimates for Payton’s worth. How many wins do you think he’s worth to the Saints?

Yasinskas: I think Payton's presence instantly takes the Saints from a nonplayoff team to a playoff team. His skills as an offensive guru are well known, and that certainly will help. But I think the more subtle benefit to having Payton back is his skill as a motivator. He's a master in that area, and he'll have his team ready for big games. Speaking of changes that came in the offseason, what do you think was the biggest move for the Falcons?

Fox: To me, the biggest change was the addition of Steven Jackson. As you well know, the Falcons struggled to run the ball late last season, when Michael Turner clearly had nothing left in the tank. I know Jackson has hit the age when running backs typically decline, but the Falcons don't need him to carry the load. They're going to pass to get a lead and run to win the game. As long as he can stay healthy, Jackson should be able to do that. How effective do you think the Saints' running game will be?

Yasinskas: That's a very timely question. Several times this offseason, Payton has said he wants more out of his running game. The Saints always are going to be a pass-first team. But if you look back at their Super Bowl year, their running game ranked in the top 10. Payton wants to get back to that, and I believe he has the tools to do that with Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Mark Ingram. I think you'll see more of Ingram this year. He's a guy who needs 10 to 15 carries to get going, and he can bring more balance to the offense. Speaking of balance, the Falcons seem to have plenty of that. How potent is their offense going to be?

Fox: I think they have a chance to be as potent, if not more so, than last season. The newly signed Matt Ryan has all of his toys back -- Roddy White, Julio Jones, Harry Douglas and Tony Gonzalez. He threw for more than 4,700 yards last season and set career highs for completion percentage, attempts and completions. He could break those again this season. It will be interesting to see if the preseason, when the Falcons were flagged for countless penalties, was an aberration. They were the least penalized team in NFL history last season. As far as setting NFL records, the Saints' defense did last season and not in a good way. Do you think it is going to be any better this season under Ryan?

Yasinskas: It's hard to imagine the New Orleans defense being any worse than it was a year ago. Things just never worked for former coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. I think there will be improvement with Ryan, but I'm not sure how significant it will be. The Saints are switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme, and I'm not sure they have all the personnel they need to be successful. Time will tell, but it's more than fair to say the defense is the biggest question mark for the Saints. Speaking of question marks, do the Falcons have any glaring weaknesses?

Fox: It is the offensive line. If Ryan is worth his salt as a defensive coordinator, he will strike the right side of the Falcons' line. That’s where the potential problems are. After 13 seasons and 194 starts, center Todd McClure retired after last season. Peter Konz, who started nine games as a rookie at right guard, slides back to his natural position at center. Left guard Justin Blaylock and left tackle Sam Baker are veteran rocks. That’s not the problem. The Falcons let right tackle Tyson Clabo walk in free agency. His replacement, Mike Johnson, broke his leg during training camp. Johnson's replacement, Lamar Holmes, was bad enough in the preseason that the Falcons signed Jeremy Trueblood earlier this week. Right guard Garrett Reynolds missed the second half of last season with an injury. How do you think Ryan will try to exploit the weakness?

Yasinskas: I agree with what you said about Atlanta's offensive line. It potentially could be a huge problem, and I'm sure Ryan is well aware of that. I'd look for him to try to exploit the right side of the line as much as possible. But the Saints have had their share of injuries on defense, and it still isn't clear how they'll apply pressure. Defensive end Cameron Jordan really is the only proven commodity as a pass-rusher. The Saints have big hopes for outside linebackers Junior Galette and Martez Wilson, and those guys need to become forces in a hurry. Atlanta has so many offensive weapons that the Saints need to get some pressure on the quarterback. Speaking of Atlanta's offensive weapons, is White completely healthy?

Fox: The Falcons better hope so. And they say he is, more or less. White sprained an ankle in the second preseason game but finally returned to practice this week. He is Mr. Reliable, having started 128 straight games, and had only two drops last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Only Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald had fewer among receivers who were targeted at least 100 times. So the Falcons need White to be healthy and productive. What’s up with the Saints’ third receiver situation?

Yasinskas: The Saints just brought back Robert Meachem, who didn't work out as a free agent in San Diego. I think Meachem can get back to being an impact player as a third or fourth receiver in time. But I think the Saints will open the season with rookie Kenny Stills as their third receiver. He has big-time speed, and the Saints need a downfield weapon to go along with Marques Colston and Lance Moore. Stills is an under-the-radar player who could have a big impact on this game. Do you see any Falcons who fall into that same category?

Fox: There are two undrafted rookie free agents on defense who won’t start but should see plenty of action. One is Joplo Bartu, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound linebacker out of Texas State. The other is Paul Worrilow, a 6-foot, 230-pound linebacker out of Delaware. Both are unheralded guys who are big and strong and really caught the coaches a little by surprise. Remember those two. OK, so give me a prediction. Who wins?

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