Saints out to protect NFC South lead vs. Falcons

The New Orleans Saints hold sole possession of first place in the NFC South.

But that can change quickly — even as soon as Sunday when they visit the second-place Atlanta Falcons.

The Saints (5-5) and the Falcons (4-6), who are tied with Tampa Bay, are both coming off bye weeks, which gave them an opportunity to evaluate themselves heading into the stretch run.

New Orleans coach Dennis Allen said the Saints have been “a tale of two teams” during the first 10 games. Early in the season the offense struggled while the defense played well enough for the team to start 3-2. The offense has played better recently, while the defense has struggled during a 2-3 stretch.

“We’ve got to find a way to get the first five weeks’ defense to show up and the last five weeks’ offense to show up, and see if those two units can play together as a team,” Allen said. “I think if we can do that then we’ll see a lot better results.”

Allen praised quarterback Derek Carr, who is in concussion protocol but practiced fully Wednesday, for his efficiency and how well he has protected the ball and “taken some shots down the field when they have presented themselves.” But he added that he’d “like to see more consistency in the passing game.”

New Orleans will have to seek more consistency without Michael Thomas, Carr’s second-most productive target among the wide receivers. Thomas went on injured reserve this week because of a knee injury suffered in a 27-19 loss at Minnesota in the last game before the bye.

Allen said Pro Bowl cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who suffered an ankle injury against the Vikings, will miss “some time” and that was confirmed via Friday’s injury report, which listed Lattimore as out. Running back Kendre Miller was also ruled out with an ankle injury.

The Falcons decided to return to second-year quarterback Desmond Ridder coming out of the bye week.

Ridder was 4-4 as the starter before being evaluated for a concussion in Week 8 against Tennessee. Taylor Heinicke replaced him to start the second half and started the next two games, both Atlanta losses.

Heinicke was sidelined by a hamstring injury in the Falcons’ last game before the bye, and Ridder came in and completed 4 of 6 passes for 29 yards against Arizona.

“We have a lot of confidence in Des,” Atlanta coach Arthur Smith said. “Over the last couple weeks, he has handled it really well. I think the time (as a backup) was very beneficial for him.

“Des did a lot of good things (during his time as a reserve). In Arizona, you could see how prepared he was. We had confidence in Des then and we have confidence in him moving forward.”

Smith said he plans to keep Ridder as the starter for the rest of the season.

“You get a different perspective of not only yourself but the offense as a whole,” Ridder said of his time on the sideline. “There are a lot of things where I’d like to have gone back and done better. I could’ve protected the ball better, but there are a lot of (instances) where I could’ve done things to not be in those situations, whether it’s footwork or your reads or your progressions.”

Heinicke is listed as questionable after being limited on Friday, while wide receiver Mack Hollins is out (ankle).

The Falcons will visit New Orleans in the regular-season finale.