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.

| 5 years ago

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

Safety Warning

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.

Game Notes

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.


Follow Ben on Twitter @PFF_Ben

| 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.

  • Mekias

    Kind of odd that the Atlanta defense did so well and won this game almost single-handedly but the Overall Defense got +0.5 points while the Overall Offense was a +9.3. Looking at that, you’d think the offense was great and the defense was mediocre.

    • Brew Drees

      I’d argue that the game was more about the Saints and Brees playing poorly than the Atlanta defense playing well. Take the situation right before half, the Saints drove right down the field on Atlanta and then completely choked with both a useless OPI penalty and then the clock gaffe. Then on the first drive of the third quarter, Saints again drove right down the field, but had Lance Moore drop an easy touchdown reception.

      I’m not trying to take away anything from the Falcons, they’re a well coached team and guys like Will Moore and John Abraham had great games, but you can see why PFF’s grades came out like that. How many of those interceptions were great plays by the Falcons? The first one Colston was wide but Brees was way late on the throw and also underthrew it a bit, Decoud did well staying deep but pretty easy when Brees throws it so bad. This one was probably the best play by a Falcons player intercepting the ball. The second one was a horrible decision and throw by Brees, threw it way behind Ivory who was well covered anyway and Weatherspoon showed some good awareness catching it, but come on it was kind of a lucky play.

      The first Will Moore one was solid, but that pass was something that even a 10 year old pop warner kid would know not to throw. And if you go back and watch the play you’ll see if Moore wasn’t there, the pass was a mile behind Henderson; it certainly wasn’t going to be completed. Give credit to Moore for catching it and being in position, but not exactly hard when Brees throws it right to him. Look at the 4th interception as well, he was under some pressure but threw it right to Peters. and the 5th one, horrible throw, though Moore showed some really good range on the play.

      The last two performances by Brees, as well as the defensive performance for the season, are going to overshadow just how consistently poor the Saints offense has been for the entire season. They haven’t played a single good offensive game outside of the game against an incompetent Raiders defense(and I’d argue that they should have easily scored much more than 38 and didn’t actually play very well). It’s not just Brees, but he obviously hasn’t played even close to elite level; his play this season isn’t remotely close to being worth the 40 million he’s getting. The receivers have regressed and the offensive line has been inconsistent – Nicks and Meachem have turned out to be big losses.

      And yes, the defense is bad, but I don’t think it’s any worse than it was the last two seasons(especially not late), in which the team won 11 and 13 regular season games. They’ve been on the field much more with the struggles of the offense and thus have more opportunity for giving up yards. And given the amount of money the Saints have invested on offense with guys like Brees, Evans, and Grubbs, it’s understandable that that side of the ball is going to be better(and expected to perform better) than the defense.

      Again, I’m not saying the Saints defense is good, that unit is horrendous and allergic to tackling, particularly the safeties and Vilma, but if the offense plays even remotely close to what they’ve been the past couple of seasons, they aren’t even in the discussion of being historically bad. The Saints have been down by at least 10 points in 9 of 12 games. Can’t solely blame the defense for that. This is an offense-driven league. When you pay your quarterback 40 million dollars for a season and give him the biggest contract ever, he has to be one of the best in the league. Hasn’t even come close. And he’s been far from an elite QB all season, not just the last two games. The Saints failures this season are on the offense IN MY OPINION. This isn’t an overreaction, I’ve been saying it all year.

      • pew pees

        it’s kind of chicken or the egg. drew brees made such poor throws because ATL got consistent pressure and the secondary wasn’t giving him anywhere to throw the ball. saints’ gaffes came from lack of options, which comes back to ATL executing their defensive game plan.

  • dave

    That was a sloppy game by both teams. How do the Falcons not win by more after a +5 turnover differential at home. I was like WTF after it seemed like Brees threw pick after pick after pick, but oh dont worry Atlanta was offsides anyway! No problem though Drew Brees can throw another pick. Hold on though, Michael turners needs to fumble here….in the words of Keyshawn COMMON MAN!!!

  • Lars Lundahl

    Brees has played poorly for the past three years (22 interceptions in 2010, that doesn’t help. From Ricky Williams to Reggie Bush, and now Ingram, Saints have been a failure at drafting running backs. The running game is inexistant and that won’t help Brees’ play. Consequently, they are a one dimensional offense. Also, lets not fool ourselves: we all know Brees plays for his stats because of that huge contract.