The Atlanta Falcons faced the New Orleans Saints on Thursday and pulled out a 23-13 victory to move to 11-1 on the season and closer to clinching the NFC South title.
We’ll grade each area of the game below.
Offense (Grade-B): Matt Ryan and the offense helped the Falcons get off to a strong start which accounted for 80 yards on six plays in roughly four minutes for its opening drive. After that first drive, that’s where some of the Falcons’ offensive flaws were shown.
The offense failed to capitalize on a Thomas DeCoud interception and gained just three yards on three plays and punted the ball back to New Orleans without even holding the ball for a full minute. Great teams take advantage of situations like that routinely. The Falcons are close to where they want to be offensively but scoring off turnovers and converting on third downs are areas Atlanta will have to focus on in the future.
That said, Ryan was efficient throwing for 165 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. He was only sacked one time, which shows the growth of the offensive line. Ryan spread the ball around well, with Tony Gonzalez being the biggest yardage hog. Gonzalez finished with four catches for 58 yards and caught Ryan’s only touchdown.
The running game showed up early, mainly on the first drive to help pace the offense. Michael Turner finished the game with 12 carries for 83 yards and Jacquizz Rodgers finished with eight carries for 43 yards.
The combined effort from Turner and Rodgers pushed the Falcons over the 100 yard mark rushing for only the fifth time all season and the first time since Week 9 against the Cowboys. That is the kind of rushing attack that can make Atlanta hard to stop in the future.
Again, the offense is close but it has to work out a few kinks like their aforementioned third-down problems. Atlanta went 1-for-11 on third downs against the Saints, with the only conversion not coming until the fourth quarter That’s not conducive to winning games, especially when the competition gets tougher than the Saints’ lowly defense.
Defense (Grade-A): The defense played about as well as a defense can play against a quarterback like Drew Brees. Not only did the defense intercept Brees five times, they also held Brees without a touchdown. No defense had done that to Brees in 54 games. Brees finished the game with a 37.6 passer rating which is another amazing feat the defense pulled off.
The defense also held New Orleans’ running game in check, which was something it failed to do in its last game against the Saints. In the Falcons’ only loss of the season, the Saints rushed for 148 yards. On Thursday, the Saints only tallied 101 yards.
Although those numbers seem comparable they aren’t because of the fashion in which they were gained. The 148 yards given up in New Orleans included Chris Ivory rushing for 72 yards and a 56-yard touchdown run. It also included Mark Ingram rushing for 67 yards.
The Saints’ leading rusher on Thursday was Pierre Thomas who accounted for 84 yards but their second leading rusher, Ingram, only got 13 yards. Taking the running game away from New Orleans undoubtedly had something to do with Brees’ five interceptions. The Falcons’ defense eliminated the big-run plays for New Orleans forcing Brees to try to beat them. Brees just couldn’t pull that off Thursday.
The secondary showed upl, with William Moore and DeCoud playing lights out. They did a great job of taking Jimmy Graham away from Brees. The defense held Graham to four catches and 59 yards, after giving up 146 yards to him in the first game.
Moore accounted for two interceptions, one of which took place in the end zone, preventing a Brees touchdown. The other came in the fourth quarter, which sealed the win for the Falcons. Thursday was arguably the best defensive performance of the season for the Falcons. A game like that is a building block for a team looking to get over the hump in the playoffs.
Special Teams (Grade-A): The special teams unit did its job well. Matt Bosher was consistent, as he always is and Dominique Franks did a nice job of securing the punts he did receive. Matt Bryant bounced back from missing two field goals against Tampa Bay on Sunday, not missing any against the Saints Thursday. Bryant made all three of his field goals, including a 55-yard field goal that put the game out of reach late.
Coaching (Grade-B): Atlanta’s coaching staff did a great job of preparing their team for a tough five-day stretch. Even more noteworthy was the fact that both games were against division rivals, making the task even tougher. With the added time off, the coaching staff will have the opportunity to assess the team’s needs and make the needed corrections.
They’ve done a great job at making adjustments when adjustments have been needed. Along with the offense’s troubles on third downs, the Falcons still have to master putting teams away. They were on the brink of doing so against New Orleans when they were up 17-0, but because of their struggles on third down, were unable to do so. If the Falcons can figure out how to take that next step, they’ll have a shot to make a serious postseason run.