The Atlanta Falcons know first-hand how good the New Orleans Saints defense has played in recent games. In the Week 11 matchup between division rivals, the Saints pummeled Matt Ryan, sacking the QB eight times, earned two interceptions, and allowed zero TDs and just 248 total yards in a 24-9 win.
Squelching the Falcons has come amid the Saints defense ascending to the top of the league in most counting stats.
"Everyone that's playing these guys is struggling. Look at the Saints' numbers; they're fantastic," Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said, via the Associated Press. "I've never seen a defense ranked in the top 10 in so many categories. They're playing with a lot of confidence."
The Saints rank No. 1 in total yards allowed, fewest big plays allowed, No. 2 in yards per played allowed and rushing yards allowed, tied for fourth in turnovers forced per game, and fifth in passing yards and scoring.
As they did last season when Drew Brees went out with injury, the Saints defense raised its game with the HOF QB not in the lineup. The shutdown play, however, started before Brees' injury.
In the past five games, the Saints D ranks No. 1 in the league points allowed per game (10.2) yards allowed (232.8), rushing yards (61.0), passer rating allowed (55.3), third-down D (25 percent conversion rate), red zone D (28.6% touchdown rate) and interceptions (10), per ESPN.
Ryan, who was sacked eight times in their last meeting, knows full-well the type of defense he's up against Sunday in the rematch.
"They don't give up many explosive plays. They get off the field on third down. They're very good on first- and second-down defense at putting you in third-and-longs," Ryan said. "When you have a defense that likes to keep things in front of them, doesn't give you big plays and keeps you off schedule, that's a recipe for success."
The uptick in play after a shaky start to the season can be attributed, at least in part, to a surging pass rush.
According to Next Gen Stats, the Saints have the second-highest pressure rate in the NFL this season (31.3 percent) thanks mostly to their work in the past four games:
Weeks 9-12: 43.1 percent pressure rate in (Highest in NFL)
Weeks 1-8: 25.1 percent pressure rate in (16th in NFL)
Veteran pass rusher Cameron Jordan credits the defense's cohesion as the season progressed for improved play.
"I think we've put together a stretch where our secondary, our linebackers, our defensive line have really elevated our play. So it's not more of an 'I' thing, it's more of a 'we' thing, where we're all elevating our play at the right time," Jordan said.
Sure, last week's game against the QB-less Denver Broncos helped goose the stats, but in the past four games, New Orleans has allowed just 1 TD in matchups that also included Tampa Bay, San Francisco and Atlanta. The last team to allow 1 or fewer offensive TDs over a five-game span in a single-season was the 2006 Broncos.
In Week 11, Ryan had a season-low 48.5 passer rating versus the Saints, the fifth-worst passer rating of his career (worst since Week 8, 2013 at ARI -- 46.6). The blowout was also Ryan's first game with 0 passing TD & two INTs since Week 5, 2015, versus Washington.
With a surging Saints pass rush heading to Atlanta Sunday, Ryan could be in for another rough afternoon.