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NFL News: Saints getting defensive ahead of season opener at Falcons

The New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons are both starting new eras as they open the season against one another Sunday afternoon in Atlanta.

Sean Payton is no longer the Saints head coach and Matt Ryan is no longer the Falcons quarterback as the longtime division rivals meet eight months after visiting New Orleans won 30-20 in the 2021 finale.

A couple of weeks later, Payton, who had been Saints coach since 2006, resigned and was replaced by defensive coordinator Dennis Allen.

Ryan, who had been Atlanta’s starting quarterback since 2008, was traded to the Indianapolis Colts during the offseason as the Falcons rebuild in head coach Arthur Smith’s second season.

New Orleans, which had the least productive passing game in the NFL last season after having one of the best for nearly all of Payton’s tenure, ranked seventh in the NFL in total defense under Allen last season.

“We want to be the catalyst for winning,” defensive end Cameron Jordan said of the defense. “We don’t want to be something where we’re winning in spite of the defense.”

Jordan finished with a team-high 12 1/2 sacks last season.

The Saints’ string of four consecutive NFC South titles ended last season, though they still had a winning record (9-8) despite enduring a series of significant absences due to injuries and COVID-19.

They’re hopeful that the return of quarterback Jameis Winston, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 8 of last season, and wide receiver Michael Thomas, who missed all of last season and most of 2020 because of multiple ankle surgeries, will help them return to the playoffs.

“Of course I’m excited but I’m also grateful,” Winston said. “I’m just grateful to have another opportunity to start the season and compete again. I’m more grateful to have Mike Thomas back.”

Thomas was limited in practice Wednesday but seems on track to start Sunday. When he was last healthy in 2019, he set an NFL single-season record by catching 149 passes.

“I’m trying to top that,” Thomas said.

The Falcons have turned to former Tennessee Titans No. 2 overall draft pick Marcus Mariota, the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner who was a backup for the Las Vegas Raiders the last two seasons, to succeed Ryan. Smith was offensive coordinator in Mariota’s final season with the Titans in 2019.

“He’s in a different spot,” Smith said of Mariota. “We all continue to grow and learn — very excited to work with him again. I think the experiences, some of the hardships he went through the last couple of years has only made him better.”

Mariota, who has played in 74 NFL games with 61 starts, is more mobile than Ryan, which should be helpful because the Falcons offensive line has allowed at least 40 sacks each of the last four seasons.

“It’s so hard to find guys that can play quarterback in the NFL,” Smith said. “It’s a hard position to play.”

Atlanta, which finished 7-10 and third in the NFC South last season, was 29th in the NFL in total offense (303.8 yards per game), 31st in rushing (85.4), 16th in passing (218.4) and 26th in scoring (18.4 points per game).

The Falcons’ two most productive offensive players beside Ryan last season were running back Cordarrelle Patterson (1,166 scrimmage yards, 11 touchdowns) and rookie Pro Bowl tight end Kyle Pitts (68 catches, 1,026 yards, one touchdown).

Atlanta used the No. 8 overall draft pick to select USC’s Drake London, the first wide receiver taken this spring. London (knee) was limited in practice Wednesday. New Orleans starting cornerback Paulson Adebo (ankle) did not practice.

–Field Level Media

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