NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara expressed confidence this past week in the team's ability to quickly coalesce around a fill-in quarterback while record-setting, 15-year starter Drew Brees is injured.
There is precedent for that. New Orleans went 5-0 in games Teddy Bridgewater started in 2019 while Brees was out with a hand injury.
The Saints (7-2), who have won six straight games, host the Atlanta Falcons (3-6) on Sunday in a renewal of their bitter NFC South rivalry. New Orleans will begin another stint without Brees, whose ribs were injured on a big hit that forced him to sit out the second half of last Sunday's game against the San Francisco 49ers. The 41-year-old was placed on injured reserve Friday, meaning he will miss at least three games.
Stepping in will be former Tampa Bay Buccaneers starter Jameis Winston and versatile athlete Taysom Hill, who can provide a change of pace to the offense. Regardless of who starts, each could have a role behind center against the Falcons.
"Last year, when Drew went down and Teddy came in, everybody really rallied around Teddy and did what they had to do to try to be perfect in their job," said Kamara, who acknowledged that when Brees isn't running the offense, it creates the need for "a little more heightened sense of awareness because, obviously, it changes."
For Winston, the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner at Florida State and No. 1 pick of the 2015 NFL draft whose raw talent has never been in question, it's an opportunity to start shedding a reputation for mercurial play that led the Bucs to let him go when they had a chance to replace him with six-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady this past offseason.
Last season, Winston joined an elite group of quarterbacks in NFL history to pass for more than 5,000 yards and 30 touchdowns in a season. He also threw 30 interceptions, though. He arguably should have been intercepted again when he threw a risky pass over the middle while playing in relief of Brees last weekend, but 49ers safety Jimmie Ward dropped the ball despite it hitting him in the hands.
Still, Falcons interim head coach Raheem Morris sees reason to believe Winston's game would begin evolving while he's with New Orleans.
"He's had a significant amount of time to be with those guys, talking like 10 weeks to be with those guys and sitting behind Drew, who is arguably one of the best quarterbacks to play our game ... so he has to be better," Morris said. "You can't help but be better when you're around those type of people and the right type of thing."
The Saints look increasingly well equipped to keep winning without their star quarterback because of how their defense has played lately. They beat San Francisco despite having just 237 yards of total offense, the lowest figure in a New Orleans win since Brees and coach Sean Payton joined forces in 2006.
The Saints rank second in the NFL against the run, and their secondary has started playing better. They've picked off five passes in their past two games, with veteran safety Malcolm Jenkins tallying one interception in each game.
"Every week, our confidence is growing," said Jenkins, who after six years with the Philadelphia Eagles returned this offseason to the Saints, who drafted him in the first round in 2009. "Every week we're executing very well, playing a lot faster and a lot more physical, and the team will need us to do that moving forward."
Atlanta's offense ranks among the NFL's most productive this season, thanks to veteran quarterback Matt Ryan, star receivers Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley and others.
While the Falcons have shown improvement on the other side of the ball recently, they are thin at defensive end after releasing Takk McKinley earlier this month and placing Dante Fowler Jr. on the COVID-19 reserve list. McKinley, a former first-round pick, was claimed by the Cincinnati Bengals but then was waived again after the team said he failed a physical. McKinley battled a groin injury this season and has a history of shoulder problems.
Rookie end Marlon Davidson, a second-round draft pick from Auburn who has appeared in only three games and has made four tackles, was held out of the past two games due to a knee injury and his stay on the COVID-19 list. Davidson, who also can play tackle, has been handled with caution in his return, and it is not known if he will play at New Orleans.
Fowler, the former Los Angeles Rams end who signed a three-year deal worth up to $48 million before the season, has two sacks and one forced fumble in eight games. He was recovering from a hamstring injury when he was placed on the COVID-19 list.
Morris said he's asking for "an all hands on deck mentality" at defensive end.
"The challenge is for these guys to rush as a unit, to rush together," he explained.
Atlanta, coming off its open date, is 3-1 under Morris, the former defensive coordinator who was promoted when Dan Quinn was fired after an 0-5 start to his sixth season with the Falcons. The mark under Morris is 1-0 against division foes, with two-thirds of Atlanta's NFC South schedule remaining. In addition to this trip to New Orleans, the Falcons host the Saints on Dec. 6, and Tampa Bay will visit Atlanta on Dec. 20 before a regular-season finale in Florida on Jan. 3.
A key to Atlanta's success with Morris has been the ability to control the clock. In the 0-5 start under Quinn, the Falcons' average time of possession was 29 minutes, seven seconds. In four games with Morris, the Falcons' average of 35:12 leads the NFL, and in that span Atlanta has improved from 21st in the league to fourth with an overall average of 31:50. However, now the Falcons face an opponent that's also solid in that category, with the Saints possessing the ball an average of 31:39 per game, which ranks seventh.