Saints host Falcons in open Sunday

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — NFL’s schedulers always find a way to send the Atlanta Falcons to the Superdome for landmark games.

In 2006, for the first one played in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the visitors were flattened by an emotional freight

train.

Now comes Sean Payton’s return from his bounty ban before a fan base that has eagerly awaited the chance to cheer for the

club’s only championship-winning coach in a meaningful game.

And by regular-season standards, a game with the Falcons is as meaningful as it gets for the Saints.

“The city is very excited. We’re very excited and it’s going to be a special game,” Saints tight end Jimmy Graham said. “I

would say definitely it’s one of the most significant games we’ve started with.”

Saints players are careful not to make

direct comparisons between the first game after Katrina with Payton’s

first game back.

Of course they are different. Still, there is a convergence of

factors that spike the level of excitement for today’s regular-season

opener between a proud Saints team trying to bounce back from the

7-9 season they endured while Payton was away, and a rival

Atlanta squad that has no shortage of talent with which to defend

its NFC South title.

“A big difference is that (Atlanta)

team today is much better than that team we played in ’06,” right tackle

Zach Strief said,

adding that the emotions flowing through the Big Easy this week

pertain to sport, while the first home game after the storm

exhibited “the emotions of life, which is incredibly stronger.”

Still, Strief said there was no mistaking that football fans in Louisiana were “amped up,” and that the Saints would feed

off of the vibe.

“Sean’s back, and it’s our biggest rival in the first game — at home,” Strief said. “So you don’t want to lose that one.”

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was

playing for Boston College in ’06, and enjoyed the feel-good story of

the Saints’ post-Katrina

return to the rebuilt Superdome. He did not quibble with the

suggestion that the Falcons looked like sacrificial lambs that

day, but he also said this time would be different.

“Certainly I watched that game in 2006, I think as did everyone in the country. It was an awesome win for that organization

at that time and I think it kind of lifted everybody’s spirits,” Ryan said. “At this point, I think they are two different

things. We are just going to prepare the same way we always do ... for a tough road test.

“We know it’s going to be loud. We know it’s going to be tough. And we know it’s going to be a 60-minute football game,” Ryan

said. “That’s really where our mindset is.”

Here are five things to know heading into the 88th meeting of these longtime divisional rivals:

FALCON FRUSTRATION

Whether the Falcons have been playoff worthy or not, they haven’t had much luck beating the Saints since 2006, when Payton

and quarterback Drew Brees joined forces in New Orleans. The Saints have won 11 of the last 14 meetings, and Atlanta fans

don’t need to be reminded where last season’s 13-3 Falcon squad saw its eight-game season-opening winning streak end. Only

one of the Falcons’ three victories since ’06 came in the Superdome, and that took overtime in 2010.

“It is pretty one-sided, isn’t it?” Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette said. “Maybe they’re scared to come in the dome,

I don’t know. But we beat them at their house, too.”

DEFENSIVE TEST

This game marks the first real test for the Saints’ new defense under

first-year coordinator Rob Ryan. Payton hired Ryan

after last season, when New Orleans gave up a league-record 7,042

yards and ranked 31st in points allowed. Ryan has scrapped

the Saints’ old 4-3 front and installed a 3-4 scheme filled with

disguised blitzes, hoping this approach is more like the

one that worked when the Saints were a playoff team from 2009-11.

If the new product is effective against an offense like

Atlanta’s they’ll know they’re on to something. They’ll have to

find a way to stop not only Matt Ryan, but receivers Roddy

White and Julio Jones, as well as tight end Tony Gonzalez and

running back Steven Jackson.

“We’re eager to see if this new plan

works as well as we think it’s going to,” Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins

said. “This preseason

has been very encouraging for us. We’ve got guys at positions they

enjoy. ... We’re very optimistic, but optimism never won

you a game.”

YOUNG SECONDARY

Falcons first-round pick Desmond Trufant is set to start at cornerback,

while another rookie cornerback, Robert Alford, will

see significant action on passing downs. All they have to do is

not get fooled by Brees, who threw for league highs of 5,177

yards and 43 TDs last season.

“I’ve been watching him for years,

dominating the game. Now I’m in the heat of the battle,” Trufant said.

“He’s going to complete

some passes. I can’t expect to win every single battle.

FAMILIAR FACES

The Saints offense, which during the past seven years has led the

league four times and has never been ranked worse than

sixth, has all of its main pieces back. Brees will have running

backs Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles lining

up behind him, Graham at tight end, and veterans Marques Colston

and Lance Moore at receiver. Even receiver Robert Meachem

is back after a year away in San Diego. Meanwhile, two new

receivers, rookie Kenny Stills and second-year pro Nick Toon, had

productive preseasons.

PROTECTION QUESTION

While the Falcons have talent galore at skill positions, their

offensive line is unproven following the retirement of center

Todd McClure and the release of right tackle Tyson Clabo in a

cost-cutting move. Clabo’s projected replacement, Mike Johnson,

also was lost for the season with a knee injury. Matt Ryan was

sacked five times in a preseason game against Tennessee and

run-blocking was inconsistent. Lamar Holmes, who played in only

one game as a rookie in 2012, is expected to start at right

tackle.