The Atlanta Falcons came into their Week 1 game against the Saints and managed to come just yards away from winning. It's not a crippling loss, but it's an unfortunate one. The question is, why did they lose, and why did it look so familiar?
I don't want to pull punches here: The Falcons were an unmitigated disaster at times against the Saints. They couldn't block worth a damn, they couldn't cover Jimmy Graham and the running backs and they couldn't get after Drew Brees consistently. Besides the Saints simply outplaying the Falcons, there were mitigating factors. Roddy White was extremely limited and Asante Samuel was out. That's a recipe for a loss, and that's precisely what the Falcons wound up with. As close as it was, you can argue that those players would have made a difference, but who knows?
Look: Going into the Super Dome is tough, and we had to know the Saints were going to play the Falcons to the hilt, because they always do. Atlanta could have won this one had they played disciplined, aggressive football, but they simply couldn't get it done on both sides of the ball when they needed to. The Saints did, and it's to their credit that they were able to walk out of this ugly game with a win.
This is a team that keeps making the same tired mistakes, which concerns me far more than the loss. They blow leads, they drop passes and fumble balls and they repeatedly fail in short-yardage situations, particularly on third down. Ultimately it's one game against a good team playing at home, and it was a game we knew the Falcons could lose unless we were slightly delusional. You can't put on your panic helmet based on this single game, no matter how tempting it may be to do so. Especially since you look so good in it!
If the Falcons can come out against the Rams a week from now with strong blocking and a better pass rush, this one will fade into memory in a hurry. What you should take away from this game is that the Saints are good, the Falcons still have plenty of issues to work out and it's no damn shame to lose to a playoff-caliber team on the road.
Dust off and remember there's still 15 ahead. Let's get into the breakdowns.
- Matt Ryan got off to a hot start, and he was able to largely keep it up. Even with lackluster pass protection up front throughout the game, Ryan managed to find his receivers again and again and keep the offense moving early on, but then he ran into troubles when his blocking completely broke down. Roddy White being more or less MIA didn't help, either.
Ryan may be limited by his line this season, but he's still one of the NFL's better quarterbacks. I'm not going to make excuses in those instances when he clearly falters, but his supporting cast was to blame in this one. The only thing I'll pin on him was that final pick, a pass that Tony Gonzalez should have come back for but was still poorly thrown.
- We were all expecting to see Steven Jackson destroy the Saints...but it took a while for that to happen. The opening drive of the third quarter saw Jackson reel off a 50 yard run, after he only had 6 carries for 21 yards in the opening half. He also reeled in 5 catches for 45 yards from Ryan, showing why he's such a potent two-way weapon for this offense.The only knock on him? Those two dropped passes, both of them quite damaging.
The larger question is whether the Falcons can consistently run the football with any effectiveness. Jackson is more useful than Turner in this offense because he can catch, but his day wound up being very Turner-esque. We'll find out against the Rams.
- This was one of the best games of Harry Douglas's career, and that career year talk suddenly doesn't seem so far-fetched. He reeled in four catches for 93 yards yesterday, making up about a third of Ryan's production and generally looking fast and lethal out of the slot. The calls for him to be replaced by Darius Johnson were, to say the least, pretty silly. He'll have more games like this, even when Roddy White is healthy.
- Julio Jones is primed to have a huge year, but he didn't get off to a great start here. He fumbled away a catch that led to a Saints touchdown and didn't quite explode on to the scene. He followed that fumble with a series of completions that culminated in a touchdown. With a final line of 7/76/1, it was a solid if not spectacular game for the stud receiver. He'll have better games this season.
- Tony Gonzalez is old, sure. So is the Mona Lisa. Both are still beautiful.
I don't want to indulge in the "Tony should have been here for camp!" meme. It doesn't do us any good, really. That said, he did look a year older and a half step slower on a handful of plays and should have made a move on Ryan's final pass. If you really want to get mad at him for the missed chip block that led to a Ryan sack, remember that Gonzo isn't going to the Hall of Fame for his blocking. He's still awfully good at football.
- The defensive tackles are still nasty. Corey Peters came up with a sack, Jonathan Babineaux clogged the middle and even Peria Jerry got a chance to slam Drew Brees to the turf. The Falcons need to do better off the edge, but it's tough to argue that the DTs aren't doing all they can.
- Any time you toss two rookie cornerbacks and a guy who typically excels as the nickel back into the starting lineup, things get dicey. Or do they?
Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford and Robert McClain held up very well against the Saints. There were mistakes made, most notably when Kenny Stills went for 67 yards in the first half, but generally speaking they acquitted themselves very well in coverage against a gifted passing offense. Robert Alford deserves special attention for picking Drew Brees in the second half, something I hope we'll be seeing a lot of in the near future. You can't help but be encouraged by the performances here, and they should be even better once Samuel's back and they don't have to face the Saints. Loved, loved, loved what I saw from the rooks.
- Matt Bryant is money in limited opportunities. Matt Bosher is cash. You get what I'm saying. Our special teams are in good hands. That's always reassuring, at least.
- The blocking is bad. Fan punching bag Lamar Holmes started off the game well before having his considerable struggles, but everyone got in on the pass blocking fail somewhere along the line. For large chunks of the second half, Ryan was on the run and didn't have time to make plays. If the line can't improve, the criticism of the front office's plan this off-season is going to intensify, and rightfully so. The Falcons also aren't winning a lot of games if they can't keep Ryan's pocket clean.
Holmes is the likeliest player to be replaced because he's young and he really couldn't hold the edge against the Saints' speediest pass rusher—mea culpa on that, everyone I told to leave Holmes alone during the game—but the problems run deep here and aren't limited to the right side of the line. The Falcons are eerily like the Packers, who have weapons for days but struggle to block for their QB and RBs. We have to hope rapid improvement is in the offing.
- The pass rush was up and down. They generally got into the backfield, but as usual the finish was missing. That was a problem, because we're talking about Drew Brees slinging the football around like a haywire trebuchet. They need more off the edge.
- You have to wonder about any decision that puts Akeem Dent on another team's top receiver. That said, Dent was strong against the run but took bad angles in coverage all day long, making him a clear mixed bag at this point. The Falcons simply don't seem to have a solution on passing downs, though I remain encouraged by Dent's athleticism.
- While the coverage was better than anticipated, the Falcons still let Brees pass all over them to the tune of 357 yards. He found Darren Sproles again and again and again underneath, opening things up for the rest of their offense. The Falcons are going to have to stop those maddening checkdown passes, or holding teams' rushing attacks under 100 yards won't matter much.
- William Moore simply missed an interception. This game was a tale of missed opportunities, and this was a big one. Can't come down too hard on him, particularly when Thomas DeCoud had a lackluster day in coverage. These safeties are too good to keep this up, but against elite tight ends they continue to struggle.
- The Saints don't have the league's best offensive line, and they certainly don't have the league's best defense. The play calling needed to take advantage of that and dial up a few more runs and take a few more strikes downfield, especially early on. The coordinators will need to be more aggressive against some of the teams coming up on the slate, because none of them are truly elite.
- The mistakes hurt. Jackson dropped two catches, Jones fumbled away the ball and Ryan's last throw wasn't good. When the Falcons play teams so close, those errors will lead to losses.
- Injuries were a killer. Limited Roddy White, no Asante Samuel and very little effective Stephen Nicholas will hurt your team when you already have a small margin for error.
Game MVP: Going to hand it to the young cornerbacks here. The Falcons didn't win, but you have to tip your cap to Trufant and Alford, who played better than any of us had a right to expect.
Game Theme Song: Sigh.
One Thing To Take Away: A banged-up, mistake-prone Falcons team wasn't good enough to beat the Saints. Will a healthy one be? Stay tuned.
Final Word: Nextweek.