Falcons at Saints
When: 8:30 tonight
Where: Mercedes Benz Superdome, New Orleans
On TV: ESPN
Saints coach Sean Payton sees Monday night’s matchup with rival Atlanta as a separate event from the 10th anniversary of the Superdome’s reopening after Hurricane Katrina.
The game and the celebration will be going on in the same place at the same time, and the same two teams will be playing.
Yet Payton sounds wary of blurring the line between the two, if for no other reason than out of respect for the unique, transcendent qualities of the Saints’ first true home game after being displaced by the storm for the entire 2005 season.
“Having been through the actual opening — that was emotional,” Payton said of the Saints’ 23-3 victory over the Falcons on Monday night, Sept. 25, 2006.
The reopening of Superdome, and the rebirth of a community it symbolized, “is not as significant to this game,” Payton continued. “This is an important division game … one team is 0-2 and trying to get a win, and another team that’s 1-1.”
That winless team happens to be the one from New Orleans, where only a handful of players remain from the 2006 squad.
The Saints have a relatively youthful roster now. A number of players were in high school — some in middle school — a decade ago.
By the time they joined the Saints, New Orleans was again home to a vibrant night life and restaurant scene, and the blue tarps covering roofs of damaged homes from horizon to horizon had long since vanished.
So while the 2006 Saints drew a profound sense of purpose from playing for fans struggling through the early stages of disaster recovery, current realities in New Orleans simply do not provide for such a scenario, said veteran right tackle Zach Strief, who was a rookie when the dome reopened.
“You can’t create that type of emotion. You can’t create that type of a feel,” Strief said, adding that the motivation to win Monday has more to do with the fact that “guys are tired of losing and it’s a lot of work and there’s a lot of prideful people in here.”
Falcons coach Dan Quinn still expects the energy in the Superdome to exceed that of a typical game.
Quinn was a defensive assistant with Miami in 2005, when the Dolphins played the displaced Saints at LSU’s Tiger Stadium.
In 2006, Quinn caught moments of the dome’s reopening on television while working on a game plan at Dolphins headquarters.
Quinn remembers how the Falcons were run out of the Superdome from the moment then-special teams standout Steve Gleason blocked a punt on Atlanta’s fourth play from scrimmage. But Quinn and his team sound pleased to be involved in another game in New Orleans with special billing.
“Getting a chance to play in games where the crowd is unique and there is a buildup for it, honestly, it is a real honor and a privilege to get to coach and play in games where it is rocking and loud,” Quinn said. “It is why we love to compete, because you get to be in moments like that.”
Here are some other story lines heading into the 94th regular-season game between Atlanta and New Orleans:
OFFENSIVE DIP: The Saints’ offense looked prolific in Week 1, racking up a league-high 507 yards and 34 points, only to falter in Week 2, gaining 288 yards in a 16-13 loss to the Giants. But record-setting quarterback Drew Brees asserted that his unit could have been a lot more productive with just a few more clutch third-down conversions in New York, where the Saints were 3 of 13.
NO NEAL, NO PROBLEM: Strong safety Keanu Neal, Atlanta’s first-round pick from Florida, has missed the first two games following arthroscopic knee surgery in the preseason. Neal returned to practice on a limited status on Thursday.
Kemal Ishmael has played well as the fill-in starter, so the Falcons have no reason to rush Neal’s return. Coach Dan Quinn said Ishmael “played a terrific game” in last week’s win at Oakland.
“When (Neal) comes back, Ish will certainly still have a role,” Quinn said. “He’s very reliable in terms of his tackling and approach.”
DEFENSIVE HOPE: A Saints defense that looked porous against the Raiders in the season opener did not allow an offensive touchdown against the Giants despite a recent rash of injuries that has sidelined first-round pick and defensive tackle Sheldon Rakins, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, and cornerbacks Delvin Breaux and P.J. Williams.
RYAN ON A ROLL: Matt Ryan needed a strong start following a decline in his first year in offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s scheme in 2015, and Ryan has delivered. He is second in the NFL with 730 yards passing, with five TDs and only one interception. Ryan completed passes to nine receivers last week. Julio Jones and Jacob Tamme each had five catches.