METAIRIE — The last time the New Orleans Saints played the Atlanta Falcons it marked a dramatic change in the Saints’ offensive productivity.
New Orleans was averaging 37.8 points through the first 10 games last season before it faced the Falcons on Thanksgiving night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. It won 31-17, but the below-average point total was a sign of things to come.
The Saints averaged 21.0 points per game over their last six regular-season games. They scored 20 in a divisional playoff victory against Philadelphia and 23 in an overtime loss to the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship.
Quarterback Drew Brees was asked about the drop-off during training camp this summer and his replay was “Were we winning?”
Yes they were, as the win against the Falcons extended their win streak to 10.
“We just weren’t beating people 48-7,” Brees said.
Now the Falcons return to the Superdome on Sunday and the Saints are winning again. They’re 7-1 and have won six games in a row.
But the offense looks more like the one from late last season than the one during the first 10 games of last season. The Saints are averaging 24.4 points per game this season, slightly more than the stretch run last season but much less than the pace of early last season.
This time, though, the game against the Falcons might be a spring-board to increased offensive productivity.
Brees has played in just two full games this season because of a thumb injury suffered in the second game. He returned from a five-game absence two weeks ago and looked like he always looks — completing 34 of 43 for 373 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-9 victory against Arizona.
New Orleans is coming off a bye week that gave him extra time to continue his recovery. The time between games was beneficial to other injured players, most notably running back Alvin Kamara and tight end Jared Cook, both of whom has missed the last two games because of an ankle injuries, as well as wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith, who has missed the last three games and five of the last six because of his own ankle injury.
But all three of them practiced fully on Thursday and should be available Sunday.
Cook, signed as a veteran free agent during the offseason, had his two most productive games with his new Saints before his injury.
Cook said he’s looking at the second half of the season “as a new opportunity to pick up the production from here.”
In Smith’s absence, the Saints haven’t had a consistently productive No. 2 receiver behind Michael Thomas, who leads the NFL with 73 catches for 875 yards and four touchdowns. Ted Ginn Jr. is second among Saints wide receivers with 20 catches.
The pressure on the other receivers besides Thomas is lessened by the productivity that Kamara and Cook bring to the passing game.
“Those two positions, Michael at the (wide receiver) position and the running backs, they create for a lot of offense and it’s been that way for a long time,” Atlanta coach Dan Quinn said. “I think they’ve got a pretty good formula how they like to play their football. They feature the tight ends in a lot of ways as well. I would say it’s not in the traditional way of a one or a two, but the way they utilize the players I think speaks volumes.”
The first quarter has been the least productive for the Saints. They have scored just 22 points in the first quarter, eight fewer than its opponents, making it the only period in which they have been outscored. The offense has just one touchdown in eight first quarters.
“I think we can do a better job of starting faster, getting early points, getting early momentum,” Brees said. “We can continue to get better at third downs, sustaining drives, which is going to result in more points, which is going to be better in a red zone efficiency.
“All those little things that at the end of the year, when you look at the playoff teams, the teams that are playing for something, man, they are up at the top in all these categories. We need to continue to strive to do that.”
By the way, Atlanta is giving up the third-most points in the NFL – 31.2 per game.