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The Falcons need to learn from the mistakes of the recent past to beat Sean Payton’s Saints Sunday

New Orleans adapts to the Falcons, but all too often, the Falcons fail to adapt themselves.

New Orleans Saints v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

When the Falcons met the Saints in early November 2019, they shocked everyone by coming out of the bye week at 1-7 and soundly thumping New Orleans. The 26-9 victory saw Drew Brees sacked six times and failing to throw a single touchdown, and the game was a delightful reminder of what it was like to watch a game against the Saints and enjoy it.

Unfortunately for the Falcons, Sean Payton’s ego is equalled only by his acumen, and when the two teams met again 18 days later the Saints were ready for them. Payton and company had cooked up a pressure-packed gameplan where Matt Ryan was sacked nine times, and New Orleans unpleasantly rolled to a 26-18 victory where Atlanta barely looked competitive on offense.

The Falcons saw that gameplan executed so effectively against them and came into their first 2020 matchup against the Saints...surprised by exactly the same tactics. Without Julio Jones for a large chunk of the game, the offense sputtered horribly en route to a 24-9 loss that was even more feeble than the one they suffered in late 2019. The Saints took their ugly loss and cooked up a way to ensure it didn’t happen again. The Falcons...well, they didn’t do that.

This has been a frequent story of the rivalry ever since Payton took over as the Saints coach, unfortunately. The Falcons beat the Saints up in 2016 and 2014, winning both in-season matchups both times and adding another in their first game in 2017, but outside of those runs they’ve largely stolen a game and then gotten thumped the next time out. Unless the Saints are running on fumes talent-wise or the Falcons are simply too good themselves, the New Orleans coaching staff repeatedly has proven itself to be capable of sussing out the weaknesses of a particular Atlanta team and either thumping them or avenging close losses over and over again.

Will that continue in Week 13? As much as I’d like to tell you no, Raheem Morris will prove to be capable of major adjustments of his own, the truth is that it may not much matter. Morris and Jeff Ulbrich have proven capable of getting the defense prepared to play—even against the Saints, a couple of horrid plays on Taysom Hill ducks swung the game more than anything else—but the offense has not followed suit. If the team is down Julio Jones again, it’s hard to imagine that Dirk Koetter and this offense will go from two subpar performances in a row to thumping a Saints team ready and willing to apply pressure and play aggressive coverage to prevent Atlanta from ever getting into a rhythm. Defensively, too, the Falcons can’t randomly decide it’s a great week to prioritize playing run stoppers up front when pressure on Hill is a proven difference-maker.

The reason I’m feeling a bit glum, then, is that the Falcons went into the last game with a poor gameplan and were beaten in much the same way they were beaten in late November 2019, just more soundly. That came despite a changing coaching staff and the veteran presence of Dirk Koetter, who has played against the Saints more than a dozen times between 2012 and 2020 in his roles as the Falcons offensive coordinator and Buccaneers head coach, which means he should not have been surprised by anything that happened. Expecting drastic change in the face of that is probably unreasonable.

At some point the Falcons will learn from the mistakes of the past and start putting down the Saints again regularly. Whether that starts this Sunday, next season, or sometime after Payton slinks off smirking to his next coaching gig is unfortunately anyone’s guess.