Momentum is crucial heading into the playoffs, and the Saints now have it.
Atlanta didn’t really lose too much with the defeat — a win at home Sunday vs. lowly Carolina, and it’s the No. 1 seed for them — but they all of a sudden have an air of vulnerability around them.
The Falcons can put a positive spin on this that it refocuses them (no pun intended) for the postseason, but this could be a significant turning point in the NFC.
Saints: Three performances of note
The competition, or apparent lack thereof at outside linebacker for the Saints has been a point of focus for us this season, and the battle between Scott Shanle (-1.1) and JoLonn Dunbar (+1.4) was brought into sharp focus in this game. Both saw extended action, with Dunbar again outperforming Shanle. Thus far this season Shanle has graded positively in only one game (+0.7 against the Seahawks), by comparison Dunbar has graded positively in his last 3 starts. Dunbar has Shanle comfortably put in the shade for run defense (+3.5 compared to -10.6) and pass coverage (+2.1 compared to -14.5), quite what is keeping Shanle on the field for so long is unclear. When Danny Clark returns from injury, it should be Dunbar on the other side.
Drew Brees (+4.2) has now thrown two baffling (to put it kindly) interceptions against the Falcons in two games this season, but despite such a dreadful play as his gifted pick-six to Chauncey Davis it was an excellent game for Brees. Watching Brees execute the short, quick passing game (much like Tom Brady in New England) is a joy to behold at times. There are weaknesses in pass protection at tackle (Jermon Bushrod & Jon Stinchcomb gave up a sack and eight pressures on Monday night) but the speed with which the ball comes out to (mostly) the right receiver often negates this. Brees was 13-14 for 131 yards and a TD between the numbers on passes targeted up to 20 yards downfield.
Will Smith (+3.5) is a streaky pass rusher but it is undeniable that he has an eye for the big occasion. Smith has graded negatively six times as a pass rusher this season but only one of those (-1.4 at San Francisco) has come during prime time. In the Saints’ five national games this season Smith has registered four sacks and 16 pressures. His pass rush grade in those games is +7.8, which compares to a grade of -1.6 for the Saints’ 10 other regular-season games. With the bright shining lights of the playoffs rolling round, is Smith heating up a starring role in a Saints’ Super Bowl repeat?
Falcons: Three performances of note
The Falcons hit the ball out of the park when they drafted Matt Ryan in the first round of the 2008 draft; their second pick in that round hasn’t panned out quite so well. For the tenth time this season, Sam Baker (-5.5) registered a negative overall grade. Baker has now given up nine sacks (only four tackles have yielded more), seven hits and 31 pressures. Not the sort of protection the Falcons would have been hoping to get from a first-round “franchise left tackle.”
One of the categorical successes for the Falcons this season has been moving Kroy Biermann (+4.5) into the starting lineup, Biermann has been a resounding success as a starter and that continued on Monday night with his 11th positively graded performance. Biermann rebounded from his worst start of the season last week against the Seahawks last week (-4.7) with five pressures in the passing game to go with two defensive stops in the running game. The Saints couldn’t get on track on rushes to the right as they averaged a meager 1.9 yards per carry on 10 rushes off either right guard, right tackle or right end.
Dunta Robinson (-3.7) was targeted twelve times, yielding 9 catches for 104 yards with no breakups. Most of the damage was done by Robert Meachem (4-5, 46 yards) & Lance Moore (2-2, 30 yards) and it was largely on short and intermediate routes moving the chains. Robinson was brought in to be the Falcons’ No. 1 corner, returning to his best form two years removed from his knee injury, but this simply hasn’t happened. The Falcons can’t afford for any more performances like this from Robinson when the playoffs roll around.
Jimmy Graham (-1.0) started for the third time at tight end this season and had a big TD catch, but increased snaps led to struggles in the run block. … Patrick Robinson (0.0) saw only 3 snaps in his first game back since the Thanksgiving Day encounter with the Cowboys.
Corey Peters (-2.3) struggled on his second outing against the Saints’ formidable interior trio as he did the first time around (-4.1) against the Saints. … Sean Weatherspoon (-0.2) played 39 snaps off the bench registering a stop but struggling at times in zone coverage.
Michael Turner picked up 45 yards on 8 carries off right end. In his nine other carries, he went for three yards.