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Falcons - Saints recap: All offense, just enough defense, and a sweet road win in New Orleans

It was a tremendous game for the Atlanta Falcons, who move to 2-1 and now own first place in the NFC South.

Atlanta Falcons v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

With the New Orleans Saints, you either get a motivated Falcons team ready to punch a rival in the mouth, or you get some of the worst football Atlanta is capable of churning out. The Falcons gave us both in stretches, but ultimately the former won out.

I don’t know what this team’s final record will be, or how good they truly are, but I do know this offense is talented and productive. They’ve now put up big point totals on the Raiders and Saints, and had they been able to run the ball at all, they likely would’ve done the same to the Buccaneers. The stout, dangerous Panthers defense will be the first major test for them thus far in 2016, and perhaps they’ll be revealed as paper tigers, but somehow I doubt that. These Falcons feel like they have legitimate talent on that side of the ball, and the fact that they’re doing all of this without a ton of involvement from Julio Jones makes me feel great about their odds going forward.

The defense is a different story, even if their struggles have come against three very capable offenses. Aside from Deion Jones’ pick six and a couple of nice plays along the way, the defense was competent at best and a sieve at worst, continuing to allow big chunks of yardage and failing to get after the quarterback. The Saints effectively compensated for a weak offensive line by getting rid of the ball quickly, as they so often do, but at some point the Falcons have to be able to react to that effectively if they’re going to hang with teams that can put the brakes on Atlanta’s offense. That day could be coming soon with the Panthers, Broncos, and Seahawks on the docket, so the defense needs to build on the positives from this game and deliver going forward.

That’s a lot of angst, though, for a 45-32 victory that made me feel as good as a Falcons win has in years. Beating the Saints makes for a great win every time out, and now that the Falcons are 2-1, in first place in the NFC South, and putting up absurd points and yardage totals on a weekly basis,

The Good

  • For a third straight week, Matt Ryan looked very strong. He clearly enjoys having this many capable targets in the passing game and arguably the strongest offensive line he’s had in his long career, and it translated to a lot of sharp throws in this one, even if he missed a handful late that would’ve salted the game away. The ground game was a huge focal point both in the red zone and throughout the entire game, so Ryan didn’t eat like he did against the Raiders, but the 20 for 30, 240 yards, 2 touchdown game was another turnover-free effort that makes me think we might wind up seeing one of the best years of his career before all is said and done. He even had a truly impressive scramble for a first down!
  • I opined (somewhat unpopularly) during this game that Tevin Coleman has been better than Devonta Freeman in 2016, which I recognize can be considered a bit of a hot take. Freeman promptly went out and made me look like an idiot, as he is wont to do.

The Falcons got both backs involved in this one, though, and Freeman wound up averaging over 10 yards per carry in his most productive game of the season thus far., adding five receptions and a touchdown. He was simply unstoppable against a hapless, depleted Saints defense, and it was amazing to watch. For his part, Coleman was once again a receiving threat, and he also scored three times en route to a day that was probably a godsend to his fantasy owners. Coleman was a great scoring option and Freeman was just a great option, period, and the Falcons clearly have one of the best backfields in football.

  • Taylor Gabriel came up with two nice catches on a day where the running backs dominated the touches through the air and on the ground. For a guy plucked off of waivers during final cuts, he’s been productive, and he may start to inch his way into a larger role if Justin Hardy and Aldrick Robinson continue to be relative non-factors.
  • We talked a lot amongst ourselves about the value of a good center, and I do believe that Alex Mack has had a positive impact on this offense. Matt Ryan looks more comfortable in the pocket, Mack is clearly comfortable calling protections, and the Falcons’ offense is just operating more smoothly with him in there. He’s not the sole reason, but Mack matters.
  • The Falcons needed to respond quickly after surrendering a touchdown on the first drive of the game, and I’ll be darned if Eric Weems didn’t do his part, bringing the kick return out beyond the Falcons’ 40 yard line. He’s quietly been excellent on special teams for yet another year.
  • Speaking of special teams, I’m not sure exactly what happened on the punt after that first drive, and I’ve watched it a dozen times. The Falcons got a lucky break when two Saints crashed into one another, put a hand on the ball and lost it, giving the Falcons a chance to score on the Saints’ 11 yard line. They obliged three plays later on a Tevin Coleman run.
  • The much-maligned red zone offense was making strides this year, and then the Falcons went nuts against the Saints before finally stalling out late and settling for a field goal. Dan Quinn said he felt better about the team’s chances inside the 20 this year, and through three games, it’s obvious why.
  • Deion Jones isn’t a great linebacker yet, but his speed is evident and he’s impacting games early, which is more than you can say for many rookie linebackers. His signature play thus far is going to be the pick six in this one, though, where he took a Brees pass to the house in speedy fashion. I really do think he’ll wind up being special, and this game was a fine testament to his promise.
  • Desmond Trufant is absurdly great, and if he’s had a couple of lapses in coverage, he’s more than made up for it with other great games and big plays. He had a sack in this one where he simply ran by blockers and nailed Drew Brees, giving the Falcons their second (only second, god) quarterback takedown of the year.
  • Keanu Neal looked good in his first game back, with excellent coverage on Coby Fleener early and solid-to-good coverage and tackling whenever he was in. He should be an asset sooner rather than later, even if he’s likely to get torched at times.
  • Speaking of rookies, Brian Poole has been way better than an undrafted free agent cornerback in his first year has any right to be. His coverage is a work in progress, as it realistically should be, but he’s a very solid tackler and I feel pretty good about relying on him as a fourth cornerback once Jalen Collins returns.
  • Kudos to Dwight Freeney for his sack, which was a simple case of him outrunning and overpowering his man en route to Brees. More of those, please.

The Ugly

  • We knew this one was going to be a little rough defensively, and it was. Deion Jones’ amazing pick six and a couple of nice stops aside, the Falcons were gashed frequently, with Mark Ingram averaging over five yards per carry, Drew Brees finding plenty of success through the air, and some ugly angles, tackling, and coverage. Some of that is to be expected against New Orleans, but this was a deeply depleted Saints team, and they still found plenty of success.

You can see the signs of promise here, and the Falcons’ defense is going to get younger and more productive going forward. There were just always going to be growing pains, and we’re certainly seeing them now.

  • Julio Jones isn’t getting a ton of targets, and in this one, he just wasn’t a factor. Ryan overthrew at least one of his targets, and those end zone fades designed for him just didn’t work out. He’s going to bust out one of these weeks—he’s Julio Jones, after all—but the connection faltering just isn’t going to be a huge concern until the Falcons sputter out passing the ball around to other receivers.
  • The pass rush materialized late against an injury-depleted, borderline woeful Saints offensive line, with Freeney and Trufant getting sacks and the team getting enough pressure to force mistakes, including Drew Brees’ scramble on 4th and 21, which effectively ended the game. It was missing early, and while you can blame some of that on a New Orleans passing attack that emphasized getting the ball out early, Atlanta simply has to get more pressure on quarterbacks to take pressure off their secondary. They have to.
  • This team has to stop costing themselves dearly with dumb penalties. This week, it was running into the punter by Justin Hardy, which took a quick three and out by an impressive defense and transformed it into an easy Saints touchdown drive that tied the game up in the second quarter. Without that, the Falcons might have put a true rout on the Saints, which would have ben even more fun.
  • We all complain about the refs, every week, so take this with your usual grain of salt. The roughing the passer call on the Falcons against Brees in the first quarter was awful, in my opinion, and I had to get that off my chest.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

It goes to Devonta Freeman. Deion Jones belongs in the conversation, but Freeman was dominant on the ground, effective through the air, and he made me eat some crow in the process. I do love crow.

One Takeaway

This offense genuinely has the potential to be a top five unit in the NFL, which could carry the Falcons further than any of us dared dream before the season began.

Next Week

The Falcons host the ailing, 1-2 Carolina Panthers, who will nonetheless be a tough, dangerous matchup looking for revenge after Atlanta ruined their perfect season in 2015. Follow Cat Scratch Reader for more.

Final Word