ReFo: Saints @ Falcons, Week 12
Primed for a Thursday Night upset, the Saints got past Atlanta to earn their ninth win and stay on track for their Week 13 showdown with Seattle. Ben Stockwell runs ...
ReFo: Saints @ Falcons, Week 12
When you have the biggest game of your seasons on the horizon, a game that the media has been hyping for weeks as the pivotal regular season game in your conference, it is easy to get distracted and take your eye off the opponent ahead of you. It is particularly dangerous to do that when that opponent is a wounded division rival that would like nothing better than to knock you off of your perch in attempt to derail your season.
Last night’s game between the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints started with this often seen before narrative playing out as the Falcons’ defense punched the Saints offense off the field in three plays before the Atlanta offense ground down the field to establish a seven-point lead. However, in spite of a far from clinical performance, the Saints still did enough that they didn’t sleep walk into a defeat against an Atlanta team that now falls to a scarcely believable 2-9 record, well in the hunt for the first overall pick in next May’s draft.
Things became more comfortable for the Saints in the second half and there was no sense of panic, but with a few key plays from the first half swinging in the opposite direction they would have been pressed to find an extra gear — one they really only found on one play when Jimmy Graham burned William Moore up the left sideline on an out-and-up early in the second quarter. In the end they got over the finish line and attentions will now turn towards that crucial game against the Seahawks a week from Monday.
New Orleans – Three Performances of Note
Stifling Up Front
Even though Atlanta’s offensive line has shown hints of improvements in recent weeks this game was always going to be an opportunity for New Orleans’ defensive line to have a big game and two players in particular took full advantage. One of the star performers early in the season, Cameron Jordan had a drop in form after Week 5 but has rounded back (possibly getting back towards full health) in the last three weeks and notched his highest pass rush grade of the season (+5.5) and posted eight pressures (2 Sk, 1 Ht, 5 Hu). Taking full advantage of a favorable matchup with Jeremy Trueblood, Jordan also added a batted pass and drew a holding penalty from Tony Gonzalez late in the third quarter. However, the undoubted star of the show was Akiem Hicks (+7.3) who not only got after the quarterback in a way we haven’t seen him do before (2 Sk, 1 Ht, 1 Hu) but maintained and even built on his excellent form in run defense over the last month.
Earning a run defense grade above +1.5 for the fourth time in the last five games, Hicks earned a season-high +5.0, tying his best mark with five stops against the run on only 18 run defense snaps, a Run Stop Percentage of 27.8%. Working from the left and right side of the defensive line, Hicks was an equal opportunity dominator last night getting the best of all three guards the Falcons deployed and tackle Trueblood for one hit and three of his stops against the run. Coming up against a depleted Seattle offensive line, the pressure will be on Jordan and Hicks to repeat this performance.
Graham Leaves his Mark on the Georgia Dome
This may have been a quiet night for the New Orleans Saints’ offense but Jimmy Graham still found the time to leave his mark on the Atlanta defense and the Georgia Dome’s goalposts. His overall grade for the game might not stand out (+0.5) thanks to his, as expected, suspect run blocking (-1.5) but he did his work as a receiver when given the opportunity, making the most out of his five receptions to rack up another 100-yard receiving game that included the game’s two longest offensive plays.
On the first (his 44-yard touchdown) he beat William Moore with a crisp out and up move and, despite having to turn back for the pass from Drew Brees, he was still able to drag Moore into the end zone for the score which put the Saints in front for good. On the other (a 35-yard gain midway through the third), he got far too much space on a crossing route before fending off the Falcons others safety, Thomas DeCoud with a stiff arm exuding physicality driving up the sideline for extra yardage to put the Saints in range for their final score. Up against the Seahawks’ secondary next week, Graham will be looking to replicate this sort of physicality to match that which Seattle’s defensive backs bring to the table.
Pressure on White to Rebound
Having lost Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson for the season, the Saints were pressed into starting Corey White at right corner this week and after a string of solid displays as a sub-package defender in the last month, he came up with his worst showing of the season. From Week 5 to Week 11 White played 161 snaps and earned a +6.7 coverage grade having surrendered only 65 yards on nine catches (19 targets), but topped that allowed production in one game last night.
Along with a defensive pass interference penalty for an extra 31 yards at the start of the second quarter, White surrendered 96 yards on eight catches primarily to rookie Darius Johnson (also the target on the penalty) who snagged 67 yards on six catches and was somewhat unfortunate to be denied the Falcons’ opening touchdown. Stepping up from sub corner to starting corner obviously puts you more in the spotlight and, ahead of the crucial game in Seattle, White will be keen to re-discover his form of the last month and not be a weak point for Russell Wilson to target.
Atlanta – Three Performances of Note
Trufant Rises Above the Rest
In a season short of star performances and reasons for cheer in Atlanta, Desmond Trufant provided one last night, producing the best individual display in what has been a solid debut season. Surrendering only four catches on eight targets, Trufant got his hands to almost as many passes as the receivers he was covering, notching three pass defenses. Trufant highlighted his discipline and patience on two particularly impressive plays against one of the league’s most cerebral quarterbacks.
Our own Sam Monson explored the busy work of Drew Brees with pump fakes on the Saints’ first touchdown drive and Trufant bested Brees towards the end of that possession, only robbed of a turnover by his own free safety. With Brees looking to the opposite side of the field it would have been all too easy for Trufant to fall asleep and allow the physical Marques Colston working from the slot to cut him off, but Trufant read Brees coming back his was and broke across Colston to get in position to intercept the pass, only to receive a knockout blow from Moore that — had it been on a receiver — would’ve likely drawn a flag.
The second time of asking on patience and discipline came midway through the fourth where he didn’t bite on a double move by Robert Meachem, staying over the Saints’ receiver the whole way and beating Meachem (who lost the pass in the air) to the ball for a pass break up that punched the Saints off the field on third down. For the season Trufant now has a dozen pass defenses, tied with Brent Grimes for the most in the league.
Right Side Struggles
The Falcons’ offensive line has been a trouble spot this season and they came up with another poor showing against the Saints’ defense yesterday, especially on the right side of the offensive line. Both rotating guards (Garrett Reynolds and Peter Konz) and Jeremy Trueblood at right tackle earned negative grades in both run and pass games. In combination, the right side of the Atlanta line surrendered 13 pressures (3 Sk, 3 Ht, 7 Hu) with Jordan accounting for five of those against Trueblood with the likes of Hicks, John Jenkins and even Brodrick Bunkley making plays against the two guards. By far Trueblood’s worst display of the season, this is a disappointing performance for a player who had added some stability to the right side of the Atlanta line, the hope will be that this was a one-off.
Strong Start, Slow Finish for Johnson
Adding meager contributions in recent weeks since he started to earn snaps in Week 7, Darius Johnson stepped up with a strong first half last night against the Saints and it could be argued that he was unfortunate to lose his second career touchdown on the Falcons’ opening drive. In the first half he had the upper hand on fellow young starter Corey White with four first downs and a pass interference drawn, but things fell away in the second half. A drop midway through the third quarter on a 3rd-and-short saw the Falcons off the field and his crucial fumble at the start of the fourth quarter (as he was about to put the Falcons into the redzone) dealt a hammer blow to Atlanta’s chances in the game. In a game of time-consuming drives, the Falcons only got the ball once more (in any meaningful sense) and their best chance was gone. Johnson and the Falcons will take the positives of the first half, but will hope not to see the costly errors of the second half repeated.
– Up against the Falcons’ anemic pass rush for the second time this season Charles Brown earned his highest grade in pass protection, surrendering just one hurry on 35 pass block snaps for a +1.9 pass protection grade.
– The Falcons’ three linebackers in this game combined to miss seven tackles, the veteran of the group, Sean Weatherspoon, led the way with four.
– Keyunta Dawson made the most of his seven snaps last night notching a sack and a forced fumble peeling back to Darius Johnson on a screen, earning a +2.2 overall grade in his brief appearance.
PFF Game Ball
Stealing the show from his fellow defensive lineman Akiem Hicks was dominant up front pairing his two sacks with five stops against the run.
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Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.