Thursday, 10 November 2011 21:04

New Orleans Saints, Falcons Rivalry Is Peaking Under Payton, Smith And Brees

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Falcons coach Mike Smith isn't sure what a Who Dat is, but he knows that a victory over the Saints in the Georgia Dome on Sunday will move his Falcons into first place in the NFC South.

The game is a pick it. The Saints are 6-3 and the Falcons are 5-3.

Smith said, "they do some kind of chant down there, and I'm not exactly sure (smiling) what is." Smith is happy that the game is in Atlanta rather than New Orleans where the Who Dat Nation's cheering makes it difficult for opponents to hear signals.

"There's electricity in the air in both buildings when these teams play," said the coach. "It's difficult for the fans in terms of the feel of the hype up to the game.  But for us it's not. It's the most important for us because it's out next one."

The game is the South's premier rivalry, and it was before it started being boosted by actual importance.

"We've ended up on the top of the standings one time, and they've done it a time or two," said Smith. ". It's very competitive. We know we're playing an outstanding football team that has lots of weapons on both sides.

"They've got a guy (Darren Sproles) that's having a Pro Bowl season as a returner. So it's going to be a big challenge for us and we look forward to it,' said Smith.

This series is not of ineptitude any longer. The Saints and the Falcons have turned their collective fortunes over the past three-plus seasons. Each has become a consistent playoff contender, the Saints with a Super Bowl title.

There is no love lost between the two in the rivalry that dates back to 1967.

"We don't like them and they don't like us," Falcons defensve tackle Jonathan Babineux told, "It is what it is. We go out there and just try to take each others' heads off. "

Smith is 2-4 against the Saints in his three-and-a-half seasons leading the Falcons. The Saints are only one of two opponents that with more than one meeting have a winning record against Smith.

The Saints and Falcons split the series in 2008 and 2010. The Saints swept both games in 2009, their Super Bowl season.

The margin of victory in the last six games has been an average of less than six points, which includes a 14-point Falcons victory during that span. Both of last season's games were decided by three points. The teams meet again on Monday Night Football on Dec. 26, the second- to- last regular- season game of the season. writer Len Pasquarelli has cited the rivalry as one of the best in all of sports. " Every year, bus caravans loaded with rowdy (and very inebrated) fans make the seven-hour trip between the two cities, " said Pasquarelli. "Unless you've attended a Falcons-Saints debauchery-filled afternoon, you'll just have to take my word for it."

The all-time series is currently led by the Falcons 45-39. I covered their first game in 1967 for The Times-Picayune, won by the Saints 27-24 before 83,437 fans in old Tulane Stadium.

I referred to the game as the "Dixie Championsip."

Saints coach  Sean Payton is more concerned about Sunday's game than the rivalry's history.

"Let's get past the long history," said Payton. "I would say in the short-term these two organizations that have been very successful.  Mike Smith, Tom Dimitroff (GM), their players and their staff have done a great job of building a program and getting better each season.

"We have a lot of respect for where they're at as a team and them having won the division a year ago. More recently, I would say, I don't know if the term is a rivalry, but it's more important because the two teams are having success. We understand and value and appreciate the importance of a divisional game against a very good divisional team"

Saints quarterback Drew Brees didn't know much about the rivalry before he came to New Orleans.

"I've learned from a fan's perspective if you're just walking around town (they say), if you do one thing this year just beat Atlanta. That's probably the sentiment of fans that are longtime Saints fans. Maybe longtime Falcons fans say the same thing to them about beating the Saints.

"I would say this though, that if you look at the past four years, ever since Mike Smith's been there and Sean's been here, both teams have been up there as far as first or second in the  division quite a few times. That's part of the reason why it's more competitive now than it's ever been."

Saints quarterback Drew Brees told the media that November is when the good NFL teams stick out.

:"Through September and October you've worked out a lot of the kinks and you're able to hit some big plays," said the quarterback who is on pace for 5,492 passing yards which would be an NFL record for passing yards..

Brees, thinking back to last season's Monday Night Football game with the Falcons in the Georgia Dome, said, "We got a big win that secured a playoff spot and all that."

The Q&A session with Brees:

When you look at how the Falcons defense has played the last three games after getting off to a slow start, what is different?
“I’d say, obviously I’m watching their defense, I’m sure their defensive guys would say stuff about their offense since the beginning of the season to now, but defensively, first of all, this is a divisional game and these guys play incredibly well at home. If you look at games with these guys during the Mike Smith era, they’ve all been pretty close games, just kind of traded jabs through the entire game and it’s always been an extremely tough contest. We know what to expect. These guys were division winners last year, won 13 games. That’s pretty impressive. They (were) the number one seed in the NFC. As I look at their team now, I see areas where they’ve gotten even more veteran, made more improvements and so I think for us, we know the challenge, not only having to play them, but in the Georgia Dome, thinking back to the last time we played them on Monday Night Football last season and getting a big win that secured us a playoff spot and all that. These guys are playing extremely well now.”

What did you know about the rivalry between the Saints and Falcons before coming to New Orleans?
“No, not really. It probably goes back to the NFC West days.”

What have you learned since then?
“I think from a fan’s perspective, if you’re just kind of walking around town (they say), if you do one thing this year just beat Atlanta.  I think that’s probably the sentiment of fans that are longtime Saints fans, maybe longtime Falcons fans say the same thing to them about beating the Saints. I would say this though, that if you look at the past, four years, even since Mike Smith’s been there (and) Sean’s been here, both teams have been up there as far as first or second in the division quite a few times. That’s part of the reason why it’s more competitive now than it even has been.”

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Last week you had 258 yards passing, the run game had 195 yards. Is that the balance your looking for and will that be something to emphasize for the remainder of the season?
“I’d say if we can rush the ball for 195 yards a game from here on out, we’d be number one in rushing in the league and that would be fantastic. Obviously we don’t get too caught up in the numbers other than that you do want a balanced attack. You always want to keep the other defense off-balance and typically the better you’re rushing the ball, the better third down situations you’re in, because typically when you’re rushing the ball first and second down, you’re getting chunks of yardage, so you’re in manageable situations, which really opens up your playbook. You’re going to end up converting more third downs. You’re going to sustain drives. You’re going to wear down a defense. I think it just leads to a lot of good things. As I’ve looked, especially over the last three years when we’ve been at our best, it’s been with a balanced attack. I look back in ’09 when we won the Super Bowl, that was as balanced as we’ve been since we’ve been here, so I think the history kind of tells you the story now. We’ve won plenty of games, where maybe the run game wasn’t working like you thought, but we were able to hit some big plays in the passing game. We won that way, but I think any offense would tell you we would love a balanced attack. We would like to be able to do that on a consistent basis.”

Can you talk about the challenges that red zone efficiency bring you this week?
“They’ve been very good in red zone defense. They’ve been very good at taking the ball away. I’d say the first thing, when you flip on the film, you see how disciplined they are and Atlanta’s coaching staff was at the Pro Bowl last year. Just from being a around those guys, I have a ton of respect for Mike Smith and his schemes and his coaching staff. You can just tell by being around him that it’s a hard-working group that preaches discipline and doing things the right way. You see that on film. That carries over. So, You’re not going to get any freebies. You’re not going to get any cheap stuff. Every yard you get against these guys is hard-earned, especially when you get in the red zone, because everything tightens up and they do a very good job with our pass rush, and they have a very good linebacking corps. They have a secondary that are a bunch of ball-hawks. When the ball’s in the air, they’ve done a great job of coming down with it. All of those things are things to be concerned and aware of.”

Hasn’t their pass rush been very effective the last three games?
“Yes, they have a very good pass rush. They get a lot of good push inside. They have some good pressure schemes. All of that is something we are going to have to be aware of and have a plan for.”

You want to have an even keel perspective, say it’s not a marathon and say there aren’t must wins, but then you talk about November football and the importance. By definition it seems like it’s something more. What does it require now?
“Through September and October you’ve worked out a lot of the kinks. You’ve established your identity. So by the time November rolls around, you know what type of team you are and then that’s when I think teams separate themselves. There’s probably a time or two when teams aren’t playing well kind of pack it in and say we’re too far out of it at this point. I don’t know, I just think November’s the month where there’s separation between the good teams and elite. Just the good teams, the teams that are on their way to something special and the teams that are just hanging around. We don’t want to be a team that’s just hanging around. We want to be one of the elite teams, a team that you know exactly what to expect every time you step on the field, a consistent attack, a consistent approach. Are we going to play perfect all the time? No there are mistakes, but we want to be defining winning football.”

Does your approach change at all during this time?
“No, I have my routine and I feel like it works very well for me. It prepares me as well as I can prepare going into every game. I think there’s definitely those moments during the season, where it hasn’t been happening the way it should. You focus on the process and keep plugging away. We have enough confidence that we’ll pull around. We’re just like any hitter that might get in a slump or anything like that in baseball, or a shooter in the NBA. And there are those times where you’re rolling, it’s clicking for whatever reason. You’re playing with confidence and have the mojo. But, still I think you should be a steady incline with that. I feel like this is that point in the season, again, November, where you want to hit that stretch where you feel really good about the way you’re playing and where you’re going.”

Tony Gonzalez and Jimmy Graham have the basketball backgrounds and Gonzalez has had a phenomenal career. Can you talk about that career and what you see Graham’s potential, being able to reach what Gonzalez has?
“I absolutely do. I’ve played with Tony in Pro Bowls, been around with him off the field. I know his approach from what I’ve seen to the game and how much he cares about it and how disciplined and diligent he is with his diet, his workout regimen and just all those things. The guy’s a machine, to have played the way he’s played for as long as he has is pretty remarkable and that’s why he’s going to go down as one of the greatest of all-time and I think it’s great for a guy like Jimmy to be across the field from a guy like that, to see the way he approaches it, the way he works and to aspire to be like that guy. I think Jimmy from a physical standpoint and mental makeup and all those things has all the tools. You have to pray for health and all those things along the way. I think we have a special one here. It’s always kind of cool to get into games like this, where like when I was a young player and I’m able to play with a guy like Doug Flutie or Mark Brunell or I’m standing across the sideline from a (Brett) Favre or somebody like that and you say when all’s said and done I’d like to have the skins on the wall that that guy did.”

How steady has Brian de la Puente been?
“He’s been awesome. That’s a good way to put it. He’s Mr. Steady. I’m really happy for guys like that who maybe bounced around the league, practice squad here for a couple games, get picked up elsewhere, kind of biding time to improve, get better, never get discouraged or frustrated, just kind of wait to be in the right situation or opportunity. He’s found that here. Good thing for us, because I think he’s been a great addition, albeit how he ended up in that spot, but I feel extremely comfortable with him and I know the rest of the offensive line does too.”

Is there a reason or a certain coverage being played as to why it doesn’t seem like Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson aren’t getting the ball as much on the middle of the field right now?
“I’d say the first three games, Lance (Moore) was down week one, Marques (Colston) was down the next two weeks and so, I think that might have given them some more opportunities in those first three games, whereas you get Marques back in the mix, you’re trying to get him back in it, you get Lance back in the mix and you try to get him back in it. I think just for one reason or another it wasn
’t like it was the first three games, but it doesn’t mean it’s not going to come back around. In fact, we go in every game with the plan that we have opportunities for everybody. It’s just a matter of getting to all of them. I think the last three or four weeks, we haven’t gotten to a lot of the stuff we had in it for whatever reason. Their opportunities will come just like for other guys, but the great thing about those guys is they understand that. I don’t think they get frustrated. They understand how important their role is regardless of whether they’re catching balls or not, they have an extremely important role on the team.”

by Ed Staton

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Ed Staton

Ed Staton is a former sports writer for the Times Picayune and New Orleans States Item.  He also served as the New Orleans Saints Information Director.  He has won 43 media awards in writing, design and photography. | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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