FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The last time Keith Brooking faced an offense as good as New Orleans', the Atlanta Falcons allowed 37 points and 484 yards in a season-opening loss at Green Bay.
Brooking knows the Saints are loaded with running back Deuce McAllister, quarterback Aaron Brooks and receiver Joe Horn, but Atlanta's star linebacker also believes the Falcons have a solid defense.
"It's a big test for us," Brooking said. "The thing we have to do is eliminate the big play."
Eliminating the big play was a hollow mantra last year when the Falcons finished 30th in both total defense and passing defense. Since losing to the Packers, the Falcons' defense has allowed an average of 8.0 points in five games. Atlanta (3-3) has improved steadily in other categories, ranking sixth in total defense and fourth against the pass.
The Falcons, though, are just 17th against the run and allowed third-string quarterback Randy Fasani to gain 58 of Carolina's 101 rushing yards. Brooking fears Brooks could hurt Atlanta, too.
"With the quarterback running for as many yards as they did last week," Brooking said, "he might be looking at that film and kind of getting in his mind that he can run our defense."
The NFC South-leading Saints (6-1) rank 10th in total offense. They're third in scoring and getting better as the game wears on:
- Brooks has the conference's best fourth-period quarterback rating on 21-for-37 passing for 271 yards, five touchdowns and one interception;
- McAllister leads the NFC and is third overall with 721 yards rushing, and New Orleans' running game ranks second in the league with a 6.2 average on carries 11-20;
- Horn has caught 13 passes on third down for a 12.3 average, and the two-time Pro Bowl selection is a big reason why New Orleans owns the NFL's second-best percentage (49.5) in such situations.
The Saints also believe starting rookie wideout Donte Stallworth will return after missing two games with a strained hamstring.
"We've faced offenses with the threat of a deep ball or the big play," Atlanta defensive end Patrick Kerney said. "But now we have to contend with a running back who's made just tons of big, long runs and a quarterback who keeps making big plays."
First-year defensive coordinator Wade Phillips continues to make adjustments. When left cornerback Ray Buchanan returned from a four-game suspension last week, Phillips had several options. He wanted more man-to-man coverage and preferred to position Buchanan and right corner Ashley Ambrose deeper without losing their threat of a blitz.
That meant Atlanta needed more speed in the secondary, so Phillips replaced Johndale Carty with backup corner Allen Rossum, signed primarily to return punts and kickoffs, as the extra safety in nickel and dime coverage schemes.
"He's got great ball skills and he's not really up in the action, so you don't really have to worry him in the running game," Phillips said of Rossum. "He gives you some speed, and if you want to blitz a corner, he can move over and match up in man-to-man. It gives us some variety."
Former Buffalo players Keion Carpenter, Sam Rogers, John Holecek and Henry Jones continue to excel for Phillips, but the heart of the defense remains Brooking, who has a team-high 53 tackles, and Kerney, who has 14 sacks in the last 22 games.
"If teams are going to get points on us, they're going to have to earn them," Kerney said. "They're going to have to chip away."