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Preparing for the return of Sean Payton

Atlanta's nemesis Sean Payton returns to the sideline after missing all of 2012 due to suspension. The Falcons haven't fared well against the Saints with Payton under the helm.

Chris Graythen

The Falcons-Saints rivalry, whether you call it one or not, consistently provides closely contested battles, and 2013 will be no different. One major change from last year's series? Saints head coach Sean Payton is back on the sideline, and he'll be calling the plays this season.

Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael took over the play-calling duties after Payton fractured his leg in 2011, and he continued in that role while Payton was suspended in 2012. But with his glorious return, Payton is back to calling the shots.

Last year's offense was potent, but the Saints just didn't quite feel like, well, the Saints. Carmichael helped foster the second-ranked offense in the league, as Drew Brees led the NFL in passing yards. But New Orleans finished No. 25 overall in rushing, averaging 98.6 yard per game.

Part of the reason the run game fell off was due to the defense's inability to stop anyone. The Saints were forced to throw often in comeback mode. But with Payton back, he's working to reestablish the ground attack, particularly the outside zone, according to Larry Holder of The Times-Picayune.

The Saints Gulf Coast offense, or whatever name you want to give it, needs success running the ball to set up play-action passes. When they won the Super Bowl in 2009, they ranked No. 6 in rushing.

Look at the disparity in run/pass plays from these two seasons.

2009: 544 pass attempts, 468 rushes

2012: 671 pass, 370 run

Payton is widely regarded as one of the best offensive minds in the league today. He constantly runs different formations and he keeps defenses guessing with different personnel. Looks for more runs in space. Look for Jimmy Graham to be utilized more. Overall, expect the offense to appear more in sync.

"Sean has the ability to put people on edge a little bit. He's the guy who calls the shots, and he forces everybody to kick it up a notch. It's like you're always being evaluated. That's a good thing-it kind of makes you leave no stone unturned. He gets the best out of people that ways," Brees said in an interview with Sporting News earlier this year.

Payton may not be able to work miracles on his defense, but he elevates everyone's play. He makes his team better just from his presence on the field. Remember the outrage of his suspension? Fans haven't forgotten. The players have forgotten. The Superdome is going to be a tough place to find a win in Week 1.

He's 10-2 against the Falcons since taking over for the Saints in 2006. He's 8-2 against the current regime of Mike Smith and Matt Ryan. Brees has a 99.1 passer rating in those eight games.

Last year's matchup in New Orleans resulted in a 31-27 loss for Atlanta. Ryan attempted 52 passes (which hopefully will not happen again). Sunday's game appears to be a shootout in the making. We know the Saints offense will be clicking. Can the Falcons respond with more firepower?

What do you think is the biggest difference with Payton back for the Saints?

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