ReFo: Saints @ Falcons, Week 13
Ben Stockwell explains how the Atlanta Falcons were able to pick up one of those big signature wins on the back of some big defense and bad decisions by Brees.
ReFo: Saints @ Falcons, Week 13
So, after much talk and conjecture we can conclusively say that the New Orleans Saints will not be mounting a monumental comeback from a 0-4 start to the playoffs in the ultra-competitive NFC. In a shocking defeat to the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday Night football New Orleans can look as much, if not more, at themselves as they can at their opposition for the reason that they lost.
As a result of some poor pass placement from their quarterback, and some even worse game management, the Saints failed to capitalize on a stretch of the game around the turn of the halves which they dominated. Even the greenest of rookie quarterback and play caller combinations would be pilloried for failing to run more than two plays in the final 45 seconds of a half. For an All-Pro like Drew Brees, famed for his control over the Saints’ offense, to do so is utterly inexcusable. Combined with some of the worst interceptions you will ever see him throw, this was a game to forget for the Saints.
For the Falcons, they now lie one win, or a loss from Tampa Bay, away from being the first team to clinch a division title this season. This game started extremely well for the Falcons, demolishing the Saints’ defense as they motored down the field to steamroll one of the league’s worst defenses. However, they got away from some of the things that were working for them early in the game and allowed the Saints’ back in. This was a crucial win for the Falcons, but this was by no means a perfect performance to silence their doubters as the playoffs approach.
New Orleans – Three Performances of Note
Most teams deploy their safeties as a last line of defense, a pairing to clean up for mistakes by the rest of the defense or keep a lid on the offense. The Saints though, seem to operate in a manner that ensures that their safeties can do catastrophic damage to the rest of a defense that is prone to letting big plays slip. The Saints’ starting pairing combined for three missed tackles in this game and they both missed Michael Turner on his 35-yard rumble on the second offensive snap of the game. Roman Harper then compounded that with a truly baffling coverage decision on the second snap of the second quarter. Rather than staying in bracket coverage on Tony Gonzalez to the end zone, Harper peeled off to cover absolutely no-one, except for perhaps slot corner Elbert Mack. This left Curtis Lofton abandoned with Gonzalez in the end zone, and though Lofton did about all he could with some good positioning he couldn’t prevent the completion. Third-year player, and first-year Saint, Rafael Bush recorded a season high 31 snaps and came up with a potentially game turning play in run defense. Time for a changing of the guard? Time for a change of system? Time for both?
Jekyll and Hyde
The headline from this game for Brees is the five interceptions, six if you consider the play by Corey Peters that was nullified by an offsides penalty, and his touchdown streak being broken on primetime football. The reality of last night’s game was another Jekyll and Hyde performance from Brees in what has been an at times inconsistent season to parallel the drama surrounding the Saints. In previous seasons we have been used to seeing Brees and the Saints as a brutally efficient passing game that simply overpowers their opponents. Well, last night we saw some dreadful decision making paired with sublime passes that should really have set the Saints up with a lead coming out of the first three quarters as they climbed back into the game after a dreadful start. Will this season just prove to be an isolated blip for Brees and the Saint, or is this the beginning of the end as the Falcons and Buccaneers start to overtake and leave behind the Saints in coming seasons?
Time for Change
Now that the Saints’ season is effectively over, will they perhaps look at moving on from veteran players who are hindering their defense more than they are helping it? A veteran core is crucial for any defense, but they must be able to contribute positively and the Saints’ veteran core is simply not doing that and hasn’t done so consistently for some time. We have already discussed Harper’s performance from last night but he was not alone. At defensive end Will Smith was once again ineffective and has not graded positively for a single game since the Week 3 loss to the Chiefs. He recorded a solitary hurry and didn’t contribute a single stop in the game. At linebacker Jonathan Vilma has returned in recent weeks with his own unique interpretation of run defense that usually involves over-pursuit, getting swallowed up by blockers and getting run over by ball carriers as Turner did for the opening score.
The Saints have done a poor job of making changes to a defense that was doing little more than clinging onto the heels of its offense in recent seasons and consequently there aren’t the players to push Smith aside “with a view to the future”. At this stage the Saints need to realize that a capable veteran would be an upgrade on Smith. Meanwhile at linebacker, Vilma brings nothing that should be seeing him get snaps over the likes of Jonathan Casillas and David Hawthorne. This defense needs a severe overhaul but these underperforming veterans should be the first to be left behind.
Atlanta – Three Performances of Note
Stepping up in the Secondary
When the Falcons made the move to add Asante Samuel in the offseason they were making a statement that they had a distinct lack of confidence in their depth at corner and tried to assemble a top line nickel secondary. Well thanks to injuries to Brent Grimes and now Samuel who left a game for the second straight week due to injury, that depth was exposed to the Saints’ potent passing attack and it stood up extremely well. With Robert McClain and Chris Owens pressed into playing a combined 141 snaps you would have expected Brees to light up the skies but he couldn’t, and on 15 targets to these two corners he collected only eight completions for 74 yards and saw four passes defensed. Combined with Dunta Robinson, who was heavily targeted (team leading nine targets) but gave away very little in terms of yardage (26 yards at 4.3 yards per completion) the Falcons’ corners had the Saints’ wide receivers fairly well locked down. With Grimes out for the season and Samuel’s injury appearing to be one that will linger it will be pivotal for the Falcons to see more performances like this as the season starts to reach its climax.
Ground Game Under Used
The Falcons started this game like a runaway train on the back of Turner and their interior run blockers who really got the best of the Saints’ interior run defense early on and let Turner do the hard work against the Saints’ abysmal tacklers in the second level and secondary. The only puzzling thing is why the Falcons went away from this, they rushed only eight times between the tackle but gained 82 yards on those carries. This is a Saints defense that has now conceded well more than 1,000 yards after contact on defense and they were ripe to be demolished inside after the opening of the game but the Falcons instead looked to a passing game that did enough but never established the same dominance. However, when it mattered the Falcons got back to the ground game and it was Jacquizz Rodgers who closed out the game with an excellent cut to a gaping hole in the Saints’ run defense.
Big Plays Down the Stretch to Close it Out
As a result of both team’s questionable game management this game was still very much alive down the stretch but the big plays, if not the consistency, by the Falcons’ defense ensured that the game closed out in favor of the home team. Early in the fourth quarter John Abraham came up with a pivotal sack of Brees right on the edge of field goal range that forced a punt from the Saints just as they appeared to be building momentum down only a touchdown. This was only one of Abraham’s nine pressures (1 Sk, 2 HT, 6 Hu) in the game as he turned in a season high besting the seven (3 Sk, 4 Hu) he recorded in the Falcons’ home victory over Oakland in Week 6. Meanwhile in the secondary, William Moore was a nuisance of the worst sort for Brees as he lurked on two passes that Brees either wasn’t expecting Moore to be around or didn’t see the Falcons’ safety breaking on the pass. Moore was all over the field in this game (season high 11 tackles) but it was his two interceptions of Brees that proved pivotal, particularly the last one which essentially ended the game as a contest.
– Michael Turner started the game brightly, forcing five missed tackles though his fumble takes some of the shine off of his performance. Those five missed tackles forced on the ground were his most since the Falcons’ Week 4 win over the Panthers.
– The two missed tackles for Malcolm Jenkins in this game took his season total to 20, and this marks the seventh time this season that he has missed more than one tackle in a game. Jenkins is, somehow, on course to break Tanard Jackson’s mark of 24 from last season – the most we have ever recorded for a safety in a single season.
– Customarily cool in the face of the blitz, both quarterbacks were inefficient this week with the two going a combined 12/29 for 148 yards with Brees throwing a pair of picks against the blitz.
PFF Game Ball
The offense got the Falcons rolling early, but it was the defense that ensured the win in the second half and William Moores’ pair of interceptions in the second half were pivotal.
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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.