This match-up between the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons has become one of the best rivalries in the NFL and once again this game did not disappoint with plenty of entertainment from start to finish. There were equal measures of excellence and ineptitude to keep just about everyone interested, along with a call from a head coach sure to provoke discussion for the rest of the week after it proved decisive in the Saints’ victory.
The Falcons do not take the victory from this game but can still take a measure of optimism, planted on their own five yard line with 1:55 left in the fourth quarter they were able to drive down the field and tie the game. They were helped on their way by some questionable play calling from Greg Williams with the Saints defensive coordinator giving Matt Ryan some easy hot reads (which were hit wide open to rapidly take the Falcons into the Saints’ half of the field). Similar execution in the red zone could have given the Falcons a victory that seemed unlikely only four minutes earlier in the fourth.
There is an air of familiarity around this matchup now as both teams have changed so little in recent seasons that the two teams have a grasp of what the other is doing and can counteract that. Both teams now have their sights firmly set on the post season knowing that they both have areas of grave weakness that need fixing if they are to trouble the Packers on their current offensive form. Let’s take a look at some of them and more.
New Orleans – Three Performances of Note
Just keep rolling right along
In an atmosphere where so few stocks and shares are reliable the one thing that everybody should be investing in is Drew Brees (+8.6) and the New Orleans Saints passing game. Even when he isn’t at his spectacular best the consistency of Brees is astonishing. Brees was able to boss the intermediate throws this week, with his 9-of-12 for 145 yards on passes aimed between 10 and 19 yards helping the Saints’ offense tick. The only thing it didn’t do was force the Falcons to back off and create space for the running game; the Saints simply couldn’t get that on track this week. With Jimmy Graham struggling with drops early on it was Marques Colston (+3.5) who was the focal point of the passing game this week, registering his second 100 yard game of the season. With the running game inconsistent, by execution and play calling, and the defense doing its best to sabotage the offense at times, through similar means, the weight of the Saints’ expectations is likely to remain on the shoulders of Brees and the passing game through the second half of the season.
A shining beacon for any offense to target
How the Saints persist with such a terrible group of linebackers is baffling at times, yet no more baffling than what they ask more of a group that seems to struggle to do the very basics well most of the time. Even with the entirely underwhelming Jonathan Vilma on the sideline the Saints managed to field a trio that put in terrible performances. Jonathan Casillas (-3.7) was the highest graded Saints linebacker this week, getting the only positive grade for any facet of the game with a marginal +0.3 grade for his run defense. The trio of Casillas, JoLonn Dunbar (-4.9) and Scott Shanle (-6.3) managed to find the imperfect blend of looking completely lost, taking poor angles and terrible tackling to achieve the holy trinity of poor linebacking play. Their comical defense of Jason Snelling’s touchdown reception at 5:18 in the third quarter was just the tip of the iceberg of their awful display.
Meager returns for aggressive pass rush
Saints defenders rushed the passer or blitzed on pass plays a sum total of 270 times in this game. From those 270 individual pass rushes on 58 Atlanta pass plays the Saints only managed to record 14 total pressures (one sack, three hits and 10 pressures). That is good for only one pressure every 19 pass rushes, or one in every four times Matt Ryan dropped back to throw. That is a frankly pitiful return and against an Atlanta line that has struggled to gel this season that comes into even sharper contrast. With the number and the array of blitzes Greg Williams throws at opposing offenses this output is poor and left defenders in bad situations at key times. Familiarity certainly plays a role, but his aggression in his play calling left him caught cold on the final drive of regulation. With the Falcons at their own five yard line (Q4 1:55) the Saints left Harry Douglas completely uncovered to get the Saints out of the shadow of their own goalposts. Aggressive blitzes is one thing but showing a rather cavalier attitude, leaving one of your opposing QBs favorite targets uncovered from the slot, is quite another thing.
Atlanta – Three Performances of Note
Nearly but not quite
Staring a double digit deficit in the face midway through the fourth quarter the Falcons went to the air and Matt Ryan (+6.2) once again answered. He closed that gap in regulation but couldn’t make the same plays in overtime to give the Falcons their comeback victory. Ryan showed his innate ability to beat the blitz, exploiting the play calling of the Saints’ defense on their two minute drive. However it was perhaps the touchdown drive that was as impressive from Ryan, showing the touch that has not always been there this season. Back to back throws at 4:25 and 4:18 in the fourth quarter took the Falcons from the Saints’ 39 yard line to the endzone. First of all hitting the perfect spot to beat the coverage of Malcolm Jenkins and Jabari Greer off of a double move to Roddy White up the right sideline, and then dissecting Jenkins and JoLonn Dunbar on the following play to put the Falcons back within a score. This game however also showed Ryan’s limitations. But for Roman Harper’s inexcusable dropped interception with 33 ticks left on the clock the headlines today would have been about Ryan throwing away the Falcons’ chance at overtime. Even in the extra period Ryan spurned a difficult, but clear, opportunity to find Harry Douglas on their fateful final drive. It is these plays that were going for the Falcons last season but Ryan is just missing by a hair this year.
Without Jones, White failed to pick up the slack
So far in 2011 the Falcons decision to go after Julio Jones has drawn dividends for the Falcons. Jones has had some massive games and when he has had down games or been absent Roddy White has backed him up and picked up the slack. This week however (-5.4) that was not the case as White had comfortably his worst game of the past four seasons. Three penalties didn’t help matters but two drops as well as an interception on seven passes thrown his way marked out a bad day for White. Harry Douglas was there to pick up the slack this week beating the Saints’ blitzes but the Falcons need more consistent displays from White this year who has shown some of his best form, but not on a consistent basis whilst having to share the spotlight with Jones.
Clamping down on the running game
In terms of run defense it doesn’t get a whole lot better than what the Falcons were able to do, making the Saints running game a complete non-factor, but they just couldn’t close out the victory. Only one of Atlanta’s starting front seven players, Corey Peters (-2.1), graded negatively for run defense and they only allowed one rush of more than ten yards in the entire game. An even greater mark of success, considering the history of this season, was their work in shutting down the Saints’ substitution for part of their running game; the short passing attack to Darren Sproles. Sproles was targeted a season low six times, catching four of those but for only two yards.
– New Orleans Saints linebackers yielded 262 yards in coverage in this game; by comparison their defensive backs gave up only 89 yards.
– After giving up only 24 yards on seven targets this week, Sean Weatherspoon is now giving up only 5.3 yards every time a pass is thrown into his coverage.
– After two further drops this week, both failed third down conversions, Jimmy Graham has now dropped more passes in the last two weeks, three, than he did in the first eight weeks of the season, two.
PFF Game Ball
Pinpoint accuracy and another almost faultless performance from Drew Brees. Any other season and he would be at the center of MVP discussions. Unfortunately for him there is a certain Mr. Rodgers and a Mr. Brady playing rather well this season.
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