Posted November 22, 2013

Brees, New Orleans Saints continue to roll as risk-averse Atlanta Falcons fall to 2-9

Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints
Cameron Jordan and the Saints' defense made life rough for Matt Ryan all night long. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Cameron Jordan and the Saints’ defense made life rough for Matt Ryan all night long. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

In the season opener between the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons, the game was decided with less than a minute left. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan threw from the New Orleans three-yard line on fourth-and-goal, but safety Kenny Vacarro tipped the ball into the hands of teammate Roman Harper. Thus, Atlanta’s season started on the wrong foot with a 23-17 loss.

When the 2-8 Falcons faced the 8-2 Saints this time, Mike Smith’s team didn’t seem to want to wait for the Saints to decide it — Atlanta seemed bent on losing this one all on its own. Matt Ryan was sacked a season-high five times, the Falcons came away with just one touchdown despite four possessions with at least one play inside the New Orleans 22-yard line, and head coach Mike Smith made what may have been his most questionable in-game call in a career full of them.

With 2:24 left in the game, Atlanta had fourth-and-15 at the Saints’ 34-yard line, down 17-13. Most everyone assumed that this was a four-down drive, but Smith went a different way. He called his offense off the field and sent kicker Matt Bryant out to attempt a 52-yard field goal. Bryant made the first try, but Saints coach Sean Payton had called a last-second timeout to ice Bryant, and the kicker missed the follow-up. The 17-13 score stuck, and everyone in Georgia was left questioning Smith’s thought process.

“There’s not a lot of fourth-and-14s.” Smith said. “We thought that the field goal — we had about 2:28 left, and a timeout before the two-minute warning. The two-minute warning is a timeout, and we’re going to have an opportunity to get the ball back and only have to kick a field goal to win. Matt Bryant has kicked a lot of clutch field goals for us, and given us an opportunity.”

But the Saints didn’t give the ball back when they got it — perhaps the Falcons would have tried an onside kick, but a team that now stands at 2-9 after coming so close to a Super Bowl last season had its failures perfectly characterized in one play.

Atlanta’s defense was able to prevent the Saints from making their usual high number of explosive plays, which may have played into Smith’s decision. Drew Brees was able to engineer just two plays over 20 yards all night, but New Orleans killed the Falcons with a series of paper cuts, contradicting Atlanta’s blitzes with screen passes and draws, and carving up their zone coverages with perfectly-times passes to tight end Jimmy Graham, who finished with five catches on seven targets for 100 yards and a touchdown. Brees and Payton understood that the Falcons were coming after their passing game, and they had the right plan. Brees completed 22 of 33 passes for 278 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, passing Warren Moon to become the NFL’s fifth-best career yardage passer in the process.

“We knew what type of game it was going to be — nine of our last 12 games with these guys have come down to the last possession,” Brees told Alex Flanagan of the NFL Network after the game. “Sure enough, it did again today. They’re a great football team, no matter what their record might say, and we knew that. Anytime you go on the road in the division, it’s hard to get a win. We played very well on both sides of the ball, gritted it out, and got the win.”

The difference for the Saints this season, and the factor that makes them more dangerous than they’ve been since their Super Bowl-winning season of 2009, is a Rob Ryan-led defense that has been every bit as opportunistic as the team’s offense. After the Falcons went 76 yards in 10 plays on their opening drive and ended it with a Steven Jackson one-yard run, they never saw the end zone again.

“They played great tonight — got the big turnover when the Falcons were in scoring position, held them to that long field goal, which they missed, and we were able to run the clock out,” Brees said of his defense. “So, complementary football by our offense and defense.”

That turnover was perhaps the play of the game. With 13:07 left remaining, receiver Darius Johnson fumbled at the Saints’ 22-yard line, and New Orleans recovered. Once again, the Falcons’ ability to sustain drives was rendered meaningless by the abilities of their opponents to make bigger plays Atlanta just can’t. Cornerback Corey White, replacing the injured Jabari Greer, redeemed himself for some early coverage blunders by recovering the fumble. But linebacker Keyunta Dawson caused the turnover with an impressive effort — he started off rushing Ryan off left tackle, but broke off the quick pass and got upfield in a big hurry to force the fumble.

Ryan could do no more. He completed 30 of 39 passes for 292 yards, but couldn’t manage a single touchdown pass. He came into this game with more total pressures than any other NFL quarterback (172, which constituted 40.2 percent of his dropbacks) and he was blistered by Ryan’s defense all night. Linemen Akiem Hicks and Cameron Jordan were the stars in that regard — Jordan had 2.5 sacks and Hicks grabbed 1.5 of his own — and the right side of Atlanta’s offense line had absolutely no answer for what Ryan was dialing up. Right tackle Jeremy Trueblood and right guard Garrett Reynolds were beaten ceaselessly, making Jordan and Hicks even more impressive than they usually are. And given Jordan’s status as one of the NFL’s best 3-4 ends, that’s saying something.

In the end, this was about Atlanta’s conservative offense coming back to bite it. The Falcons controlled the clock for over 33 minutes, but could only watch in desperation as the Saints ran out the clock when possession most counted. The field goal decision was magnified by another call that led to three points instead of seven for Atlanta — with 3:28 left in the first half, Ryan scrambled from the New Orleans 10-yard line and had half a shot at a touchdown — linebacker Ramon Humber and safety Roman Harper were closing in, but Ryan slid at the four-yard line to a cascade of boos from the home crowd. The 24-yard field goal just left those fans wondering what might have been.

In this game, in that one scramble, with that field goal decision, and throughout the entire season, Mike Smith’s team laid up when it should have been shooting for the flag. And this is not a league that rewards the risk-averse.

22 comments
JOHN140
JOHN140

This is what happens when a coach tries to play a smart (old fashioned by today's thinking) game and run an offense that actually helps his defense instead of undermining it. I guess it's that smart part that bores Doug Farrar. Instead of losing 55-30 by throwing recklessly downfield the Falcons  were within one play of winning for most of the game. I'd rather place my bets on one big play than place bets that my QB who is having an off year without his starting offense can throw 5TD's and 500 yards. Even if the sports press mocks you afterwards.

BobJackson
BobJackson

Second-guessing runs rampant when it doesn't work out.

Keep in mind these same Saints had New England beat.  And HAD the ball!

And ran three times & punted, not allowing one of the best quarterbacks to throw for a first down or two, putting away the Patriots.


mike202
mike202

How many here think NO will win in Seattle after watching both teams play the Falcons in 
Atlanta in the last two weeks?

YuckDaFankees
YuckDaFankees

And with the 1st pick of the 2014 draft Atlanta selects that lazy loser Clowney. 

gary41
gary41

I agree the NO defense this year was the surprising difference maker.  In close games it comes down to one play here or there, assuming luck or bad calls do not get in the way.  Overall, it is hard to criticize Smith &  Koetter, who have been consistently successful over the past 3-4 years.  For Atlanta this will be all about next year.....also the final year for coaching contracts.   

cwadvanced
cwadvanced

Mike smith has no guts when he plays the Saints.  He has always played conservative and paid the price.


NolaLegalmvp
NolaLegalmvp

I thought the Falcons played well. But they said it themselves, this game was their Superbowl. Beating their biggest rival the Saints and possibly ruining the Saints season by costing them home field advantage in the playoffs was the Falcons Superbowl. Plus, it was at home and a nationally televised game. So I am not surprised the Falcons played as well as they did. 


However, that's no excuse for the Falcons season. Everyone has injuries. Saints are playing with a starting corner who the Saints had cut once before. Saints are down to 4th and 5th string LBs, who they also cut before. Saints played without their all pro G as well. 


Last year, Saints had one of the most difficult, polarizing, and obscure seasons in NFL History and not only did they still manage to win more games than the Falcons have this year, BUT they still beat the Falcons last year when the Falcons were at the top of the NFC. So what is the Falcons excuse? They lost a starting LB (who is back btw) and their starting WR? Well, Falcons still have Pro Bowl TE, WR, and another great 3 WR in Harry Douglas, plus good RB's. 


No excuse for the Falcons horrific season. And they paid Matty Ice 100M bucks on par with Brady, Brees and Manning???? For what? Name one thing Matty has done to prove he is worthy of such a contract? His numbers are horrible in the playoffs. 


Lastly, if you are a 100M QB, then you are supposed to make WR's better. So why hasn't Matty made his backup WR's look like pro bowlers like Brady does and Brees does and Manning does? Why? Because Matty Ice is not an elite QB-he just stole 100M from the Falcons. 

anon76
anon76

I still don't understand why everyone thinks the FG try was such a bad decision.  4th and 15 is just not a makable play, whereas a 52 yard field goal in a dome should be about 60-75% chance of success.  They had held NO scoreless on 4 of their last 5 possessions, and with 3 timeouts & 2minute warning it should have been enough.  Not to mention, if they made the FG & got the ball back, that's about 35 less yards they would have needed to score the winning points, vs. if they missed the conversion on 4th and 15.  Talking heads can scream about that choice all they want- it was the right call.

dukegfsl
dukegfsl

Ever notice how the Saints play to the level of their competition? Barely winning or barely losing.  I'm not sure this is a good thing. Could be genius, could be a sign of mediocrity... Bad teams can figure them out week after week and damn near beat them on a very regular basis. I guess the record is the final barometer for the regular season, but I just can't help thinking about how close all the Saints games are. With the exception of Dallas, I'm not certain that the Saints have dominated anyone this season. I think they will likely lose their first road game this playoff season. Certainly an amazing turnaround from last year, as has been the case for the Falcons, but in the opposite direction... The Saints are my team, but they really haven't impressed me on the offensive side in 2013. I predict that the Seahawks will beat them decisively on all fronts come December 2nd. The Saints will NOT make it to the NFC championship. Breaks my heart... 

MarkoMarkovic
MarkoMarkovic

I'm pretty sure a 100 Million $ QB sliding to protect himself is considered a "smart" decision, if Brees does it in that same game. I think Ryan will do that 10 out of 10 times, and the media would do well o not mirror the fans frustration with this team. It's not analysis, it's emotion. The smart move, if your not Cam Newton and built like a linebacker, is to slide.

SHOGUN
SHOGUN

should be fired for going for the FG...terrible call....even with FG you need to stop NO and get the ball back...so why not try the 4th down and hope you get it...best case, the game is in your hands still...worst case, you have to stop NO (which they would have had to anyways, with a FG)....

Greg60
Greg60

High hit on Matt not called....worse than what was called on 49er's. Promising drive stalls...Saints win. Game changer? Maybe not, but the Falcons didn't do much after that. Let's talk about that instead of picked up flag on Carolina . Brady lost that shot with a bad pass. PI, holding, whatever...didn't effect the outcome of that play. Good call by ref's.

help4mac1
help4mac1

The high point of Smith's and Ryan's tenure was beating the Giants last year after getting whipped by them in the playoffs the year before. 

riley8
riley8

Smith melts when the game is on the line just like Matty Ice.  

anon76
anon76

@mike202 

You just can't compare a divisional rivalry game like NO-Atlanta with Seattle-Atlanta.  I like Seattle's chances at home, but not because of anything that came out of the teams' respective wins against Atlanta.  Might as well compare their relevant strength of victories against Tampa Bay- I don't recall NO spotting a 21-point lead to TB.

TerryPoupart
TerryPoupart

@dukegfsl Really?    Your not certain that the Saints have dominated anyone this season? Tell that to Arizona (31 - 7), Miami (38 - 17) and Buffalo (35-17)  not to mention Dallas.  Breaks your heart?   Saints fans waited 40 years to have a dominate team like this and no Saints fan would write this post.   Please go pretend to be something else.

TerryPoupart
TerryPoupart

@MarkoMarkovic  Really?   It was 3rd down and he didn't get a 1st, so sliding down at that point was giving up on the TD.    It's OK for a QB to slide to protect himself but a GREAT QB is aware of the situation and takes the chance when the opportunity calls for it.  When faced with a similar opportunity against the Cardinals, Brees  ran it in and that's not the only time he did that.   Let me correct you on another point.   Brees is a 100 Million $ QB, Ryan is a QB that is being paid 100 million.   There's a big difference.

rskins09
rskins09

@SHOGUN   Your right ... 17-13  with 2.25 mins .remaining .. Is a field goal  4 points now ..When did it change ? ..Know the Falcons  have had a slew of injuries this year, etc ..But even during previous  years they ( the Falcons)  seem like  their missing something to put them over the top every year  . I don't know what it is -- leadership, a key player , coaching , head coach , QB -- something is lacking, missing every year  the past four , five years ..Matt Ryan is a good QB but not great .. He's not going to lose many games for his team, but he's not going to win many for them either ..

johnvas49
johnvas49

@Greg60 Yeah, that was a nice punch to the head the Ryan got.  That should have been a 15 yard penalty and a first down for the Falcons.  May have resulted in a touchdown instead of a long field goal and made a difference to the outcome.  Instead, the Saints get the sack and some much needed momentum...

TerryPoupart
TerryPoupart

@johnvas49 @Greg60  Referees like everyone else are human.   Sometimes they make bad calls, sometimes they miss calls but most of the time they do a remarkable job of making the right call.   Sometimes the calls go your way, sometimes they don't.  Good teams take advantage of opportunities losers complain about 'bad' calls.