Since Brees joined the Saints in 2006, Atlanta is 2-10 in the NFC South series, and the Falcons know why.
Brees hasn’t just beaten Atlanta with his right arm. His footwork, field vision and game preparation are just as lethal.
“That’s why we’ve got to finish plays,” Falcons safety William Moore said. “That’s the biggest thing. You will think the play’s over, and Drew will step up and hit something big.”
Maybe when the Falcons (8-0) visit New Orleans (3-5) on Sunday, Atlanta will have a better chance at success now that Mike Nolan is their first-year defensive coordinator.
Atlanta has dropped three straight in the series, and its blowout loss in Week 16 last December at the Superdome was one reason the Falcons weren’t exactly disappointed when Nolan’s predecessor, Brian VanGorder, left for Auburn.
Nolan, now in his 14th year as an NFL coordinator, says that Brees not only has great players around him, but adds that the record-setting quarterback is also blessed with an elite intangible — pocket presence.
Nolan respects Brees’ innate ability to avoid sacks and pressure by knowing which way the pocket is moving while keeping his eyes downfield.
“Whether it’s to step up or move to the left or the right and to avoid it when a guy’s coming, he’s not looking at you,” Nolan said. “The good ones look down the field. They’re not thinking about all the stuff going on around them, but they have an ability to kind of move where the pocket allows them to stay alive. He does a great job with that.”
This season started out tough for Brees in the pocket. With coach Sean Payton suspended for the season and unable to help New Orleans correct its protection problems, Brees was sacked an uncharacteristically high 12 times in the first five games.
During the last three games, however, Brees has been sacked a combined three times. Not surprisingly, the Saints have won two of three.
Falcons defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux is planning on Sunday’s matchup being as tough as any Atlanta’s defense will face. He remembers a 2010 loss at the Georgia Dome in which the Falcons had 10 free runs at Brees, but finished with just one sack.
“His pocket presence is better than most quarterbacks we’ve faced this year, so it will be a challenge for us and particularly our young guys, Babineaux said. “Our hands are going to be full.”
Under Nolan, Atlanta is hardly conventional with its schemes, dropping defensive ends deep in coverage, using a four-man front with three defensive tackles, moving four-time Pro Bowl end John Abraham from side to side and deploying disguised blitzes.
Despite his impressive numbers in 12 series games — eight 300-yard games and 10 games with at least two touchdowns — Brees expects to see some different looks from the Falcons.
“Even though it’s a new system, everybody does their offseason study,” Brees said. “They might acquire a guy here and there that brings a different strength. You definitely can see some new twists to what they’re doing. They’re playing extremely well.”
In winning their third straight over Atlanta last December, the Saints kept Brees on the field in the fourth quarter of a blowout victory at the Superdome. By finishing the game, Brees set the NFL single-season record for yards passing.
Far worse for the Falcons was getting knocked out the division race. They had to settle for a wild-card playoff berth and were crushed two weeks later at the New York Giants.
DeCoud said Atlanta won’t focus on the past. There’s too much at stake, particularly having to cover New Orleans’ route combinations in which they might send Devery Henderson and Lance Moore deep, send Graham over the middle, have Colston on a slant pattern and running back Pierre Thomas ready for a screen or short pass in the flats.
“On first and second down, they’ll try a tricky play-action and steal something over the top, but then on third down they get into their concepts,” DeCoud said. “If you study enough film — and even games that aren’t in our breakdown of what we’re given this week — you can get a feel for what they’re going to do.”
But just because they know what’s coming doesn’t necessarily help the Falcons.
“Our hands are going to be full,” Babineaux said. “We just have to make sure we wrap up. He’s very slick. He can move around and get away from a lot of pressure. We’ve got to make sure when we’re there that we wrap up and get that sack.”