Saints shredded by Falcons’ running game on first drive

ATLANTA – After rushing for just 46 yards in a 31-27 loss to the Saints on Nov. 11 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the Atlanta Falcons needed just three attempts to top that total Thursday night.

The Falcons got a 35-yard run from Michael Turner on their second play from scrimmage, then got a 5-yard pickup from Turner before backup Jacquizz Rodgers had a 14-yard burst on the next play.

That gave the Falcons 54 yards and they eventually rolled up 71 rushing yards on five carries on their 80-yard drive that was capped by Turner’s 3-yard touchdown run.

ANOTHER 300: Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw for 341 yards against the Falcons, snapping a streak of five straight games in which he failed to reach 300.

It was Brees’ 63rd 300-yard game of his career, which broke a tie with Brett Favre for third place on the NFL’s all-time list and moved him into a tie with Hall of Famer Dan Marino for second place.

Peyton Manning holds the record with 68 300-yard games.

STRIEF RETURNS: The Saints had veteran right tackle Zach Strief in the lineup for the first time since injuring his groin in a Nov. 5 game with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Strief, who missed three games after having a procedure to repair a core muscle injury on Nov. 9, returned to the starting lineup for the game with the Falcons and was backed up by William Robinson.

THOMAS SITS OUT: Saints tight end David Thomas was one of the Saints’ seven game-day inactives because of a knee injury.

Thomas was injured in Sunday’s loss to the San Francisco 49ers and was limited in the only two practices of the week on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Michael Higgins, who was signed from the practice squad on Tuesday, joined starter Jimmy Graham on the field in two-tight end sets.

INACTIVES: The other Saints inactives were DE Junior Galette (ankle), T Charles Brown (knee), DT Tom Johnson (back), S Isa Abdul-Quddus (concussion), WR Courtney Roby (shoulder/ankle) and LB Scott Shanle.

Galette missed his fourth consecutive game, while Brown was out for a second straight week.

The only inactives of note for the Falcons were DT Peria Jerry (quadriceps) and S Charles Mitchell.

INJURIES: Falcons CB Asante Samuel, who didn’t practice this week because of a shoulder injury, apparently re-injured it on the Saints’ first drive and did not return. … WR Harry Douglas left with an ankle injury in the first half and did not return.

STILL ROLLING: Former Central High and LSU offensive lineman Todd McClure played in his 194th NFL game and started for the 191st time on Thursday night.

The 35-year-old McClure was chosen in the seventh round of the 1999 draft by the Falcons with the 237th overall pick. Despite his low draft status, he’s started every game that he’s been healthy for — 184 of them — since 2001.

LAGNIAPPE: The Saints are now 33-35 in primetime games. … Because Tom Johnson was inactive, rookie defensive tackle Tyrunn Walker, a New Iberia native who played his college football at Tulsa, was active for the first time this season. … Grambling coach Doug Williams was a press-box visitor before the game Thursday night. … Fellow Baton Rougean Warrick Dunn, a former Falcons running back and minority owner of the team, was spotted on the sideline during pregame warmups.

Saints TE David Thomas inactive for game with Falcons

ATLANTA — Saints tight end David Thomas will miss Thursday night’s game with the Atlanta Falcons because of a knee injury.

Thomas was injured in Sunday’s 31-21 loss to the San Francisco 49ers and was limited in the team’s only two practices of the week on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The good news for the Saints is that right tackle Zach Strief is active for the first time since injuring his groin in a Nov. 5 game with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Strief missed three games after having a procedure to repair a core muscle injury. It wasn’t known 1 1/2 hours before the game, however, if he’ll be in the starting lineup.

INACTIVES: In addition to Thomas, the other Saints inactives are DE Junior Galette (ankle), T Charles Brown (knee), DT Tom Johnson (back), FS Isa Abdul-Quddus (concussion), WR Courtney Roby (shoulder/ankle) and LB Scott Shanle.

The only inactives of note for the Falcons are DT Peria Jerry (quadriceps) and S Charles Mitchell.

Cornerback Asante Samuel, who didn’t practice this week because of a shoulder injury, is active.

Saints’ Strief likely to play against Falcons on Thursday night

It appears that Saints tackle Zach Strief, who has missed the past three games with a groin injury, will be available for Thursday night’s game with the Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome.

Strief, who started the first eight games at right tackle, practiced on a limited basis Wednesday as the Saints wrapped up their preparations for the game. He was listed as questionable by interim coach Joe Vitt.

The Saints made no move to add another tackle to the roster with backups Charles Brown (knee) out and Bryce Harris (ankle) on injured reserve, which is an indication that Strief will play.

The only other tackles on the roster are Jermon Bushrod, the starter on the left side, and William Robinson, who was signed on Nov. 21.

“He’s answered the bell in practice and has looked OK,” Vitt said of Strief, “so we’ll wait and see.”

INJURY REPORT: Besides Brown, Vitt ruled four other players out of the game — DE Junior Galette (ankle), DT Tom Johnson (back), FS Isa Abdul-Quddus (concussion) and WR Courtney Roby (shoulder/ankle).

Strief, TE David Thomas (knee) and CB Corey White (knee) are questionable, while CB Elbert Mack (concussion) is probable.

The only players listed as questionable by the Falcons are CB Asante Samuel (shoulder) and DT Peria Jerry (quadriceps) after both missed practice again Wednesday.

SEEKING A SWEEP: The Saints will be trying to sweep the season series with the Falcons for the fifth time in the past seven seasons.

The Saints, who took a 31-27 win over the Falcons in their Nov. 11 meeting in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, won both games in 2006, ’07, ’09 and ’11 under Sean Payton.

In the 14 seasons (1992-2005) before Payton arrived in 2006, the Saints won both games four times — in 1992, ’94, 2000 and ’03.

SAINTS ON THURSDAY: While the Saints have played six Thursday games in franchise history, going 3-3 overall, only three have come following a Sunday game.

In those games, they beat the Falcons in 1992 (22-14), lost in overtime to the Chicago Bears in 2008 (27-24) and defeated the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day in 2010 (30-27).

The other three Thursday night games have come in the NFL’s opener to Kickoff Weekend at Indianapolis in 2007, against Minnesota in 2010 and at Green Bay in 2011.

HITTING 5,000: Even though they held a team under 400 total yards for the first time this season when they gave up 375 on Sunday in a loss to the San Francisco 49ers, the Saints are still on pace to set an NFL record for most yards allowed in a season.

They’ve given up 5,003 through 11 games and with five games remaining they’re on pace to allow 7,277 yards — easily breaking the league mark of 6,793 by the 1981 Baltimore Colts.

Saints-Falcons Scouting Report

WHEN: 7:20 p.m. Thursday

WHERE: Georgia Dome, Atlanta

TV/RADIO: NFL Network/WTGE (100.7-FM), WWL-AM (870-AM, 105.3-FM)

RECORDS: Falcons, 10-1; Saints: 5-6

LAST WEEK: Falcons defeated the Tampa Bay Bucs, 24-23; Saints lost to the San Francisco 49ers, 31-21

COACHES: Falcons, Mike Smith, 5th season (53-25); Saints, Joe Vitt, 2nd season (7-9)

NFL RANKINGS

Offense (league rank in parentheses)

Points: Falcons, 26.7 (8); Saints, 28.0 (5)

Total yards: Falcons, 385.9 (6); Saints, 381.9 (8)

Rushing: Falcons, 88.3 (28); Saints, 91.5 (27)

Passing: Falcons, 297.6 (2); Saints, 290.5 (5)

Defense (league rank in parentheses)

Points: Falcons, 19.6 (6); Saints, 27.6 (28)

Total yards: Falcons, 344.9 (14); Saints, 454.8 (32)

Rushing: Falcons, 123.2 (22); Saints, 156.5 (32)

Passing: Falcons, 221.7 (13); Saints, 298.3 (30)

KEY PLAYERS

Falcons: QB Matt Ryan, TE Tony Gonzalez, WR Roddy White, DE John Abraham, LB Sean Weatherspoon, FS Thomas DeCoud.

Saints: QB Drew Brees, TE Jimmy Graham, WR Marques Colston, DE Cameron Jordan, WLB Jonathan Vilma, FS Malcolm Jenkins.

FALCONS SCOUTING REPORT

Offense: The Falcons rank second in passing offense and the Saints are fifth. And the Saints rank 27th in rushing, while the Falcons are 28th. Still, they’re more than capable of doing some damage if Michael Turner can get going against the NFL’s 32nd-ranked run defense.

Defense: If the Falcons can’t stop the run against the Saints, who had 148 yards against them on Nov. 11, they could be in trouble. Atlanta ranks 22nd against the run, which made their linebackers and secondary vulnerable to Drew Brees in their first meeting.

Special teams: Matt Bryant has been a very good kicker for a long time and is 26 of 31 on field goals, while Matt Bosher averages 47.1 yards per punt. Tiny Jacquizz Rodgers is a dangerous return man who has a long kickoff return of 77 yards.

FALCONS FACTS

The Falcons lead the series with the Saints, 45-41, and also won the only playoff meeting in 1991. … The Falcons have two players with Louisiana ties — center Todd McClure, a former Central High and LSU standout, and quarterback Luke McCown, who played at Louisiana Tech and was in the Saints’ training camp this summer. … Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, a former LSU assistant, is the son of former Saints coach Dick Nolan. … Wide receivers coach Terry Robiskie starred at LSU from 1973-76, while tight ends coach Chris Scelfo was Tulane’s head coach from 1998-2006.

Compiled by Sheldon Mickles

Saints’ Strief hopes to return Thursday against Falcons

METAIRIE – The Saints’ banged-up offensive line could be in much better shape for Thursday night’s game with the Atlanta Falcons.

The Saints have used four right tackles in the past four games after a chain of injuries that started when Zach Strief hurt a groin against the Philadelphia Eagles and had to have a surgical procedure for a core muscle injury.

Backup Charles Brown went down with a knee injury two weeks later and his replacement, rookie Bruce Harris, was lost Sunday to a broken bone in his right leg — which forced them to put in William Robinson, who was signed four days earlier.

Strief practiced on a limited basis last week, but wasn’t ready to go Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers. Interim coach Joe Vitt and Strief said Tuesday he has a chance to play after making significant progress.

“I have a chance,” said Strief, who was limited again Tuesday. “It feels good. We’ve had all improvements and no setbacks. It just wasn’t quite there Sunday, but it felt good today.

“It’s definitely going in the right direction. But again, it’s going to be a coach’s decision.”

“There’s a possibility … it looks good,” Vitt said when asked if Strief could return Thursday. “Our right tackle situation is going to fine in this game.”

SHORT WEEK: With only a limited time to prepare for Thursday night’s game, the Saints crammed 1 1/2 days of practice into one on Tuesday when they worked on first-, second-, and third-down plays.

Usually, on their first big day of practice, it’s first and second downs. That’s followed by third down the next day, and finally goal line and short-yardage situations.

On Wednesday, they’ll work on goal line and short yardage.

“It’s a challenge, but we’ve done this before,” Vitt said.

PRACTICE REPORT: Not working Tuesday were Brown (knee), DE Junior Galette (ankle), FS Isa Abdul-Quddus (concussion), DT Tom Johnson (back) and WR Courtney Roby (shoulder/ankle).

In addition to Strief, TE David Thomas (knee) and CB Corey White (knee) were limited Tuesday, while CB Elbert Mack (concussion) had full participation after missing Sunday’s game.

ROSTER MOVES: The Saints signed tight end Michael Higgins from their practice squad to help out in case Thomas can’t play or is slowed by his knee injury and put Harris on injured reserve.

The Saints also signed guard/tackle Ryan Lee to take Higgins’ spot on the practice squad.

FALCONS AILING: Starting cornerbacks Asante Samuel (shoulder) and Dunta Robinson (illness) both missed Tuesday’s practice and their status for Thursday was uncertain.

Also missing the workout was DT Peria Jerry (quadriceps), while T Sam Baker (groin), LB Sean Weatherspoon (ankle) and WR Harry Douglas (ankle) were among eight players who were limited.

SAY CHEESE: The Saints took their team photo last week with everyone donning the familiar visor that suspended coach Sean Payton wears. Also, the spot where he would be sitting was left open.

“The idea was kind of thrown out there and everybody was game for it, so it’s what we did,” quarterback Drew Brees said when asked about the visors.

Saints chat with Advocate sportswriter Sheldon Mickles

Saints’ Colston sets franchise record with 56th career TD

NEW ORLEANS – For the second straight week, Saints wide receiver Marques Colston recorded a significant milestone — this time setting the franchise record for career touchdowns in Sunday’s 31-21 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

Colston caught a 10-yard scoring pass from Drew Brees with 7:53 left in the second quarter, which was the 56th touchdown of his seven-year career.

That enabled Colston, who caught his 500th career pass last Sunday, to break a tie with Deuce McAllister, who had 55 touchdowns from 2001-08.

BUNKLEY EJECTED: Saints defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley was disqualified from the game after free safety Malcolm Jenkins blocked a 32-yard field-goal attempt by the 49ers with 1:05 left in the contest.

Bunkley was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct and ejected. TV replays showed he kicked 49ers offensive lineman Alex Boone in the helmet while Boone was lying on the ground.

“One of the keys to this game is keeping your poise,” Saints interim coach Joe Vitt said. “He’s got to keep his emotions under control and do the right thing.”

TOUGH TIMES: Rookie Bryce Harris got his first NFL start at right tackle because Zach Strief and backup Charles Brown were sidelined with injuries, but Harris was lost on the Saints’ 12th play while blocking on a running play.

Harris didn’t return after suffering an injury to his right leg. He was replaced by William Robinson, who was signed just Wednesday after Brown went down with a knee injury last week.

SPROLES RETURNS: Running back Darren Sproles was active Sunday for the first time since fracturing his left hand on Oct. 28.

Sproles did not have a rushing attempt, but he led the team in receptions (seven) and receiving yards (65) and returned one punt for 3 yards.

INACTIVES: The Saints’ inactives were Strief (groin), Brown (knee), CB Corey White (knee), DE Junior Galette (ankle), CB Elbert Mack (concussion), LB Scott Shanle, and DT Tyrunn Walker.

The only inactive of note for the 49ers was RB LaMichael James.

INJURIES: In addition to Harris, Saints wide receivers Marques Colston and Lance Moore went to the locker room to be checked for concussions after taking hits to the head in the second half. But both returned.

Niners running back Kendall Hunter (ankle) and wide receiver Kyle Williams (knee) were hurt on the same play in the third quarter and neither returned.

STREAK ENDS: The Saints’ streak of 14 consecutive wins in November came to an end with the loss to the 49ers after winning all three games played earlier this month. Their last loss in the month came at Tampa Bay on Nov. 30, 2008.

LAGNIAPPE: The Saints are 19-28 when Brees has at least 40 pass attempts after throwing 41 Sunday. They’re 48-12 when he throws fewer than 40. … Brees did extend his two NFL-record streaks with a TD pass in his 54th straight game and had at least 20 completions for the 47th consecutive game. … Rookie running back Travaris Cadet again returned kickoffs even though Sproles was back and averaged 29.6 yards per return with a long of 36. … Running back Chris Ivory, who didn’t play in the first seven games, made his first start of the season.

Saints’ RB Sproles active for crucial game with 49ers

NEW ORLEANS – Saints running back Darren Sproles is active for today’s game with the San Francisco 49ers for the first time since fracturing his left hand on Oct. 28.

Sproles, who had an NFL playoff-record 15 catches in the Saints’ 36-32 loss to the 49ers in the divisional playoffs last Jan. 14, missed three games after having surgery to repair the hand he fractured in an Oct. 28 game with the Denver Broncos.

Saints right tackle Zach Strief, who returned to practice this week on a limited basis, is among the Saints’ inactives. He’ll miss his third straight game since having a procedure on his groin to repair a core muscle.

INACTIVES: The other Saints’ inactives are CB Corey White (knee), DE Junior Galette (ankle), T Charles Brown (knee), CB Elbert Mack (concussion), LB Scott Shanle, and DT Tyrunn Walker.

The Niners’ inactives are FB Will Tukuafu (wrist), QB Scott Tolzien, WR A.J. Jenkins, RB LaMichael James, S Trenton Robinson, G Joe Looney, and NT Ian Williams.

SMITH ACTIVE: 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, who started the first nine games but missed Monday night’s 32-7 blowout of the Chicago Bears, is active.

However, second-year pro Colin Kaepernick is expected to start his second NFL game.

Saints facing tough task against NFC West-leading 49ers

When taking a long look at the San Francisco 49ers, Saints interim coach Joe Vitt said their 21-6-1 record doesn’t begin to tell how good they’ve been under second-year coach Jim Harbaugh.

Included is a 9-3 road record, which Vitt said is the best in the NFL since Harbaugh took over in 2011. That’s not all they’re good at, Vitt said.

“I think it’s amazing when you go back and look at the formula that they’ve had for winning the last two years,” said Vitt, who will face the 49ers for the second time in just 10 months on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. “Last year, they led the league in protecting the football. Last year, they led the league in taking the ball away. Last year, they led the league in defense.”

On and on it went with Vitt pointing out that the 2011 Niners led the league in stopping the run, in short-field possessions, taking the ball over inside the 50 and in short field points.

This season, they lead the league in rushing and are second overall in defense — including second against the pass and sixth against the run.

“It all starts from being a physical football team, and they want to grind it and wear you down,” he said. “That’s really the staple in the foundation of what they do. They stop the run and they run the ball.”

TAKING IT AWAY: As Vitt mentioned, another staple of the Niners’ rugged defense is takeaways. They had a league-leading 38 in 2011 and have 15 this season, giving them 53 in 26 regular-season games.

The Saints certainly know. In their 36-32 divisional playoff loss to the 49ers in Candlestick Park last Jan. 14, the Niners came up with three fumbles and intercepted Drew Brees twice.

The biggest came at the end of the Saints’ first possession, when, after driving all the way to the 49ers’ 7, Pierre Thomas fumbled after a brutal hit from safety Donte Whitner which knocked Thomas out with a concussion.

VITT’S VALUE: After going 2-4 under Aaron Kromer, the interim to the interim coach, the Saints have gone 3-1 since Vitt returned for the Denver game on Oct. 28.

With a combination of Kromer and Vitt, the Saints have won five of their last six games and are in the playoff picture going into the final six games.

“After the Denver game has been the real push, and I think there’s a feeling we’re starting to hit our stride and find a rhythm,” Brees said. “You can feel it, you can see the results.

“Joe, he brings a lot of institutional knowledge, not only about what we do here but he’s been around the game since 1979,” he said. “That’s the year I was born, so 33 years, his stories about this league … he can just go down the roster about all these great teams from the past, and usually there’s an anecdote or a story that would apply to something we’re going through.”

PRACTICE REPORT: For the Saints, DE Junior Galette (ankle), CB Corey White (knee), T Charles Brown (knee), CB Elbert Mack (concussion) and LB Ramon Humber (ill) did not participate in Thursday’s practice.

T Zach Strief (groin) was limited for the second day in a row.

Vitt said if White and Mack can’t play Sunday, they could move free safety Malcolm Jenkins in to corner, his position as a rookie in 2009, to help Jabari Greer, Patrick Robinson and Johnny Patrick out.

ANOTHER STEP: While they’re not concerned with stats at this point, the Saints can do something Sunday that only one other team has done since the NFL realigned and went to four-team divisions in 2002.

From 2002-11, according to research done by New Orleans-based writer Guerry Smith, 36 teams started 0-4 — as the Saints did this season. Only one of them, the 2006 Tennessee Titans, were able to rebound and get above the .500 mark at any time in the season. The Titans finished 8-8 that year,

The Saints, who are 5-5, can join them with a win over the Niners.

HORN TO APPEAR: Former Saints wide receiver Joe Horn will appear at the Saints Hall of Fame Museum before Sunday’s game.

Horn, a four-time Pro Bowl pick and a Saints Hall of Famer, will greet fans from 1-2:30 p.m. There is no admission charge to the museum for ticket holders for three hours before and 45 minutes after each home game.

Saints’ Vitt is wary of 49ers’ top-ranked running game

METAIRIE – When the Saints face the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, which quarterback they will go against — Alex Smith or Colin Kaepernick — is the least of their worries on that side of the ball.

Smith missed Monday’s game against the Chicago Bears because of a concussion and his status for the matchup with the Saints is in question.

Kaepernick, a second-year pro, took over for Smith and directed the 49ers’ easy 32-7 win over the Bears, completing 16 of 23 passes for 243 yards with two touchdowns while posting a passer rating of 133.1.

Saints interim coach Joe Vitt was more concerned Wednesday with the 49ers’ top-ranked running game which averages 165.3 yards a game and 5.5 yards per attempt.

“Both of those quarterbacks do a great job of functioning within the system, but this is a run-first offense,” Vitt emphasized. “They’re running the ball better than anybody in the NFL right now.

“They’re proficient at a gap scheme, they’re proficient at the toss-crack perimeter scheme, they’re proficient at pulling the guard to the front side. And, they have a great wham scheme.”

HARBAUGH COY: Niners coach Jim Harbaugh, who said Monday night that he’ll go with the quarterback that has the hot hand if Smith is cleared to play this week, wasn’t about to let the Saints know who they’ll be facing.

“In both guys, we have quarterbacks we’re confident in and believe in — and have won for us,” he said, “Alex over a long period of 25 games and Colin playing winning football the last two times he’s been out on the field.

“Plus, (Kaepernick) has gotten to play this year. Both have displayed that they are guys that we believe in, are confident in, and can win for us.”

Vitt said the Saints simply have to be ready for both and that they can’t be too consumed with who’ll eventually start.

STRIEF RETURNS: The Saints got good news Wednesday when right tackle Zach Strief, who missed the last two games with a groin injury, was able to practice on a limited basis for the first time since being hurt on Nov. 5.

Strief said he had a procedure done by noted sports hernia specialist Dr. William Meyers, who repaired a core muscle injury and not a sports hernia.

Strief said Thursday will be a key day for him to see how he responds to Wednesday’s physical activity, but the decision to play or not play Sunday will lie with the coaches and trainers.

“I was just trying to get back into the routine and see how things are,” said Strief. “Right now, I feel great, but (Thursday) I could wake up and have swelling and not feel great.”

PRACTICE REPORT: Four Saints — DE Junior Galette (ankle), CB Corey White (knee), T Charles Brown (knee) and CB Elbert Mack (concussion) — did not participate in Wednesday’s practice.

Vitt said White, who missed last week’s game, is getting better quickly. That could be a key because Mack, his replacement in the nickel package, has to go through the concussion protocol before returning to the field.

Strief was the only player who was limited Wednesday.

ROSTER MOVES: With Strief still not at full strength and Brown likely to miss Sunday’s game, the Saints signed tackle Williams Robinson to the active roster and released wide receiver Greg Camarillo.

Robinson, who will likely back up starter Bryce Harris, was on the Saints’ practice squad for 10 weeks in 2011 and also was on the active roster for five games late in the season.

The Saints also signed tackle Jermarcus Hardrick to fill a spot on the practice squad after guard Harland Gunn signed with the Atlanta Falcons.

DREW DONATES: Saints quarterback Drew Brees and the Brees Dream Foundation is giving $1 million to help with the relief efforts from Superstorm Sandy in the northeast.

“Obviously, we know the type of devastation a hurricane like that can cause,” Brees said. “We can only imagine the devastation and the way it has changed people’s lives up there.

“I know they have a long road ahead of them. Certainly they can use all the help they can get.”