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Saints offense will tell us where the Falcons defense is really at

After a string of games against poor offensive teams, the defense gets a formidable challenge this weekend.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The Falcons offense - and Matt Ryan in particular - have been the talk of the town in recent weeks. The top scoring offense in the league has looked unstoppable recently, with Ryan playing particularly efficient ball. In the recent winning streak, though, the Falcons defense has looked decent at times and had a particularly good showing against the Panthers last weekend. Some fans have begun to say that this defense is coming together, even with key players like Desmond Trufant and Derrick Shelby absent.

Is it true, though? Is this defense no longer the terrible unit that ranked as one of the worst in the league to start the season? The upcoming game against the Saints will provide some answers.

First top offense in weeks

Playing poor offenses has helped this defense build some confidence in recent weeks. The Rams and 49ers had very, very poor offensive units while the Panthers have a unit that features a woeful offensive line. In each of those games, the Falcons secondary played particularly well, defending sub-par receivers being thrown to by poor QBs (Newton is not a poor QB, but his play against the Falcons certainly was).

This Sunday, none of that will be the case. The Saints have the second highest scoring offense in the league, lead by a future Hall of Fame QB in Drew Brees. They have several good/great receivers in Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead, and rookie sensation Michael Thomas. They have a stout running back in Mark Ingram and a mostly competent offensive line.

Can the Falcons secondary - again, without Trufant - sufficiently cover Cooks, Snead and Thomas? Can Beasley, Freeney and Clayborn generate enough pressure or get critical sacks?

I think we all know that this Falcons defense is not going to shutdown the Saints offense. The question is whether they’re good enough to stop them in key spots. Can they get a critical pass deflection or a drive-ending sack against a top-notch offense?

Making a run in the playoffs

Let’s be honest, if the Falcons are going to make any kind of noise in the playoffs, the defense has to be at least marginally better than they have been. They don’t have to be good, but it can’t allow an opposing offense to score a TD on every drive. While I have faith that our offense can keep up with any team in a shoot-out, it’s just not a recipe for consistent success.

While it’s unlikely we’ll face an offense as good as the Saints in the playoffs, there are some legitimately good offenses that are at least comparable. Green Bay is firing on all cylinders again, while Dallas has a dominant OL and fantastic running game. A decent showing against the Saints could provide some hope that this team will not be solely reliant on the offense to get it through.

I’m not asking for a miracle here. The Saints will very likely score repeatedly on Sunday, forcing the Falcons to do the same. However, if this D can get the occasional stop - whether by a timely sack, interception or some other method - it will give us all a little bit of hope that they’ll find a way to do the same in the playoffs.

Do you think this defense will do it? How nervous are you about watching them against this Saints offense?