ReFo: Falcons @ Saints, Week 10
Regardless of the records coming in, this game was going to be a tough, hard-fought divisional matchup between the Saints and the Falcons. Though the Saints have now won 11 of the last 13 matchups dating back to 2006, this is a competitive rivalry with five of the last six games decided by four points or fewer.
The Saints showed improvement on both sides of the ball, and while their offense still isn’t up to the level of previous years, they’re clearly getting closer. After coming in as the NFL’s least penalized team, the Falcons drew six flags and were unable to punch the ball in on two trips inside the Saints’ 5-yard line. And they could have been better served by being more aggressive at times.
Even with their first loss, the Falcons remain in great position to get a playoff bye (perhaps without the added pressure of going undefeated), while the Saints can get to .500 with a win against Oakland next week, a feat that looked impossible when they were sitting at 0-4.
Atlanta – Three Performances of Note
Battle of the Tight Ends, Part I
When players start talking about retirement there usually is an accompanying decline in the level of play on the field. As evidenced by his 11-catch, 122-yard, two-touchdown performance, that just hasn’t been the case for Tony Gonzalez (+3.5) this season. He didn’t stretch the field – his longest gain was just 19 yards – but was his usual reliable self in the intermediate passing game, as he was targeted on 30 percent of Matt Ryan’s passes, beating eight Saint defenders for receptions. His two touchdowns were classic Gonzalez — despite being well covered on both, he was able to extend and high-point the ball, perhaps channeling his basketball skills to box out defenders on the plays. His only fault was the fourth-down drop that ended Atlanta’s comeback chances and, ultimately, swung the battle of the tight ends (and game) in favor of New Orleans.
Most of the time it’s beneficial to have a balanced offense. However, yesterday the Falcons may have been better off completely abandoning the run. On 18 attempts, they gained just 46 yards, good for 2.6 yards per carry. No Falcon had more problems running the ball than Michael Turner (-1.0), who gained just 15 yards on 13 rushes. At times in his career known as ‘The Burner’ for his speed and described as a bowling ball for his power, Turner showed neither quality against the Saints, and really has struggled most of the season. He was slow getting to the line, and usually went down on first contact, forcing just one missed tackle.
Not all the blame should go to Turner when the offensive line struggled to open up any kind of running lanes. In particular, center Todd McClure (-2.5) and left guard Justin Blalock (-3.9) had poor games. The problems in the run game were as evident as ever on third-and-goal from the 1 with 1:56 left in the game, when Blalock was badly beaten and Turner was stuffed behind the line.
When the Falcons do run the ball going forward, the ball should be put in the hands of Jacquizz Rodgers. Despite averaging 9.7 yards per rush, including an electrifying 18-yard run late in the fourth quarter, Rodgers only carried the ball three times.
The Falcons needed a strong performance from their secondary to slow down a potent Saints passing game. Asante Samuel, at least, did his part. Grading at +4.1 in coverage, Samuel didn’t allow any of the three balls thrown in his direction to be caught and came away with two pass defenses – both on third down – as well as a diving interception on Drew Brees’ first pass of the game.
He wasn’t perfect on the day, however, as he struggled in run support and drew a costly unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty following his interception. As great as he was in coverage, he couldn’t make up for the rest of the back seven, particularly William Moore (-3.5 coverage) and Stephen Nicholas, neither of whom could match up with Jimmy Graham.
New Orleans – Three Performances of Note
Battle of the Tight Ends, Part II
Not to be one-upped by his counterpart for the Falcons, Jimmy Graham (+1.6) came up with a huge performance of his own for the Saints. Catching seven of eight balls thrown his way for 146 yards and two touchdowns, Graham was uncoverable. He did most of his damage against Nicholas and Moore, but even when the Falcons used a corner on him, they had no success stopping the big tight end. This was evident at 6:34 of the third quarter when, despite having great inside position at the snap, Falcons nickel corner Robert McClain still allowed Graham to beat him on the crossing route for a crucial third-down catch.
For all of the spectacular plays Graham makes, he’s also been maddeningly inconsistent. This was on display in the second quarter when he followed up a third-down false start penalty with a drive-killing drop – no player had more entering Week 10 – on a very catchable ball. His nine drops are now two more than he had last season. Of course, the Saints will gladly take a few foolish plays if they more often get the kind of plays like Graham’s third-down catch in the fourth quarter that went for 46 yards, setting up a Garret Hartley field goal that put the game out of reach.
A week after having their best game of the season on the ground, the Saints enjoyed another strong game rushing. With Darren Sproles out, the trio of Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas, and Chris Ivory averaged 5.3 yards per carry on 28 attempts for 149 yards. The group was best running to the edge, where, bolstered by a spectacular 56-yard touchdown run from Ivory (+2.1), they averaged 7.8 yards per carry. Most impressively, though, is that they did it without much help from the offensive line, gaining a ridiculous 147 yards after contact.
Even though Ingram is having probably the best two-game stretch of his short career, Ivory has been the spark. As we pointed out before the game, he offers a combination of size, toughness, and burst that is otherwise absent in the Saints’ talented group of running backs. The speed was evident on his touchdown run, and he broke or eluded five tackles on the game. His seven forced missed tackles in 17 carries this season are just five fewer than what Ingram has done in 70 carries.
Strong Up Front
The much maligned (and for good reasons) Saints defense came up with some huge plays when it counted, especially on two goal-line stands late in the game. They were led by the play of the defensive line, which provided some good pressure on Ryan and was very strong against the run. All eight active linemen received snaps, although the group didn’t have quite as much success as they did a week ago.
Holding the Falcons to just 2.6 yards per carry, the unit was effective in shutting down a strong running attack, particularly near the end zone. The effort of tackle Tom Johnson (+1.4) can’t be overlooked, as he played a critical role in stoning the offensive line on a few plays.
And they weren’t bad rushing the passer either. The group recorded 19 of the defense’s 22 disruptions and pressured Ryan on about 37 percent of his passing attempts. Reserves Martez Wilson and Turk McBride were the most productive on a per-snap basis, combining for five pressures in 23 rushes.
– Playing at right tackle for the injured Zach Strief, Charles Brown (+2.3) was the Saints’ highest graded lineman and surrendered just one pressure in pass protection.
– Falcons reserve lineman Mike Johnson’s first quarter touchdown catch was his first target and catch of the season in 20 routes run.
– Atlanta averaged a horrific -0.14 YPC on runs to the left of center.
PFF Game Ball
This one goes to Chris Ivory, whose electrifying 56-yard touchdown run in the first quarter put the Saints within three and helped avert a potential blowout.