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Saints vs. Falcons: Four Pivotal Plays

There were so many plays that contributed to Atlanta's loss to New Orleans that it couldn't be narrowed down to three.

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The defense gets a pass on this week's edition of Three Four Pivotal Plays. The Falcons held the Saints' prolific offense under their average for total offense, passing yards, and well under their average of 27.7 points per game. Frankly, if a defense can hold the Saints to just 17 points, they deserve to win. This particular loss had much more to do with the offense than the defense.

Pass protection was terrible against the Saints. Matt Ryan was sacked six times, hit three times, and hurried 12 times. There was a controversial non-call early in the game that was very frustrating, because there should have been a roughing the passer flag, and there was not. The sack itself was just one of many, and all of them were pivotal, so this serves as an example of how poor pass protection contributed to the loss.

Ryan takes the snap out of the shotgun and he has Steven Jackson in the backfield. At the snap, Steven Jackson goes in motion and runs a nice route right up the middle. Harry Douglas is wide open, and is going to cut in toward the middle.

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Garrett Reynolds just absolutely does not block Akiem Hicks at all. Not even a little bit.

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Hicks fouls the entire daylights out of Ryan, yet does not draw a flag. A ref is right there. It's inexcusable.

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The play resulted in a loss of eight yards. The Falcons consequently could not convert a first down, and ended up settling for a field goal.

The next pivotal play was also controversial. Matt Ryan doesn't scramble much, and when he does, it's a sight to behold. Matty's not what you'd call a "mobile quarterback." Late in the second quarter, in the red zone, Ryan was forced to scramble, and the outcome wasn't what many fans would have preferred.

Ryan takes the snap in the shotgun on third down, and he's under a lot of pressure pretty much immediately. Ryan scrambles up the middle, and statistically, it was a four-yard scramble, because the line of scrimmage was on the ten yard line. In reality, though, Ryan started scrambling from the 17 yard line.

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Ryan scrambles, gains 11 yards, and slides at the six yard line. This was controversial because many fans would have liked to see Ryan push for the touchdown instead of giving up the play short of a first and settling for a field goal. It was pivotal, because the Falcons lost by four points. Upon looking at the play more closely, Ryan really didn't have much of a choice.

Saints safety Roman Harper is right there to make a play, and Keenan Lewis and Ramon Humber are closing in fast. There's no way Ryan is getting in the end zone. Ryan had the choice of getting hit by two to three defensive players, risking injury, and not getting a touchdown, or sliding, staying healthy, and not getting a touchdown.

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The third pivotal play of the game came early in the fourth quarter. The Falcons are moving the ball effectively, and they're on the New Orleans 22 yard line. Matt Ryan gets a short pass off quickly to Darius Johnson.

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Johnson is hit by Saints linebacker Keyunta Dawson, and fumbles the ball. Dawson recovers, and the Falcons, after moving the ball very efficiently, and executing a play that got them into the red zone, comes away with nothing.

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Our fourth pivotal play comes toward the end of the game. After three first downs in rapid succession, the Falcons are down by four points, and are on the New Orleans 29 yard line. The first down play is a pass over the middle intended for Tony Gonzalez, which goes incomplete.

On second down, Ryan takes the snap out of the shotgun, with Jason Snelling in the backfield. Four receivers run vertical routes. They've all got single coverage. Roddy and Tony Gonzalez are going to get separation and cut back toward the middle.

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But it doesn't matter, because this time it's Lamar Holmes who doesn't contain the Saints' Cam Jordan. Jordan sacks Ryan from behind for a five-yard loss.

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The third down play is an incomplete pass, and the Falcons are faced with fourth and 15 thanks to the sack. Mike Smith opts for a field goal attempt. Matt Bryant, typically as clutch as they come, makes his first attempt, but is iced by a Sean Payton time out. His real attempt goes wide. Instead of being down by one, and in a position to make a defensive stop and get into field goal position to win--a goal that would have been pretty attainable--the Falcons are down by four, and they stay down by four.

To sum up how that loss felt, I leave you with this image.

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Which three plays would you single out as the most pivotal plays of the game?