The 2014 Falcons needed to win this game. Let's not mince words here: quite a few people were down on the team this week, and very few believed they could win it. It ended up being a statement game and it provides tremendous momentum as the team goes on the road next week.
But what can we take away from the game today? Here are the three key things for me:
1. This offense could be special
The talk all preseason was about the various weapons - outside of Roddy/Julio/Harry - that were emerging. We saw hints of it all preseason, but it's hard to know how it will all come together in the regular season. We got our first glimpse today.
Devin Hester went off for 5 catches for 99 yards. Antone Smith had a monstrous 55 yard pass for a TD. Devonta Freeman averaged 7.5 yards per carry. Even Toilolo caught 3 passes, including one for a TD.
Let's not overlook the fact that Ryan was sacked just once, though his footwork (HIS FOOTWORK!) kept many plays alive as well. Jake Matthews was shutting down Junior Galette until he was injured, and Gabe Carimi continued to do so in the second half. The interior of the line was pretty solid all day and Lamar Holmes did well against the very good Cameron Jordan.
And what more can be said of Matt Ryan's day? That was easily one of the best quarterback performances we've seen lately, and it was clear he was a man on a mission. He made play after play and spread the ball around to 9 different receivers, 5 of which had 50 or more yards.
It's only one game, but if this offense can continue to get the contributions from guys like Hester/Smith/Freeman and protect Matt Ryan, this team could field a very, very dangerous offense this year.
2. The concerns about the pass rush are not any better
On the other side of the ball, the results were less spectacular. Actually, the results were painfully bad. Let's briefly start with the positives: Our secondary looked very good, for the most part. Desmond Trufant was not letting any deep completions happen on his watch, and Robert Alford was similarly stingy. Robert McClain even pitched in with a crucial interception of Brees in the end zone. William Moore's forced fumble at the end of the game was huge as well.
Likewise, our linebackers seemed to play well, with Paul Worrilow in particular continuing with his tackle-fest from 2013. He sheds blocks better and has a great nose for the football.
After that, though, the news was not so great. For being a team that we've estimated will be a great run-stopping team, we allowed 139 total rushing yards and 5 yards per carry. As for the pass rush - well, the only sack we had was nullified by a penalty. We did get some pressure on Drew Brees occasionally, but he regularly escaped from the pocket to cause damage.
Granted, the Saints offensive line has always been very, very good on the interior. And Brees is not an easy QB to get to. But, at times, it seemed our defense was completely unable to get any pressure whatsoever. Guys like Osi Umenyiora and Jonathan Massaqoui were very quiet all game.
It's hard to argue with the end result, but this team will need this defense to muster a better pass rush if they want to make a serious run for the playoffs. Let's hope Mike Nolan and Bryan Cox can figure out how to fix this in the coming weeks, because it is still a big concern.
3. This team seems mentally tougher
The third quarter lull. We've all seen it repeatedly over the years, and it drives us nuts. But not today. Today, the Falcons played their best football in the third and fourth quarters. The offense scored 14 and 10 points in the third and fourth quarters, while the defense allowed 0 and 14 points respectively.
But the notable thing was that this team seemed determined to win. Every time the Saints scored, it seemed the Falcons were fired up to do the same. Just when the Saints seemed to deal a knock-out blow, this Falcons team got back up - dusted themselves off - and kept throwing punches. At one point, the game seemed to be getting away from the Falcons, but they never let themselves get completely out of it. The scratched and clawed and fought their way back into the game.
For a team that has been labeled "soft" by numerous outlets, it was the kind of performance that shuts those pundits up. The team got knocked down, but continually got back up. It was a mentality we haven't seen enough of in the past, but one I hope we see more of this year.
In all, it was a great win - though not a perfect one. There are many positives and many things to fix. But for a first game, I'll take it.