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Defensive fortitude keeps destiny in the Falcons hands

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Dan Quinn's highly-touted, ultra inconsistent defense delivered when it mattered most.

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NFL: New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Thursday night football tends to produce the most bizarre games. When you expect two high powered offenses to light up the scoreboard, it somehow ends in a grueling battle with both elite quarterbacks struggling to make plays. What seemed like a tantalizing matchup on paper regressed into a sloppy battle of survival. The injury list for New Orleans nearly reached double-digits. It’s another example of why the NFL should remove Thursday night games, but that is a discussion for another day.

Critics will analyze how fortunate the Falcons were on the night. Losing Alvin Kamara turned a dynamic Saints’ offense into a disjointed group reliant on Michael Thomas and Mark Ingram. Dan Quinn’s decision making was baffling in critical situations. To make a dreadful decision in the last two minutes of each half in a close game usually doesn’t end well. Thanks to a resilient defense led by Deion Jones, the Falcons somehow found a way to prevail. It was a remarkable performance for a defense that can rise to the occasion as much as they are capable of crumbling into pieces.

Defense takes the initiative

In a game where nothing went smoothly for either team, the Falcons’ defense stole the show in a must-win situation. They showed great composure against one of the best offensive minds in the league. Other than a coverage bust between Robert Alford and Keanu Neal, they didn’t endure any other major breakdowns. The miscue could have been from playing Cover 2, which they have only used it on two percent of passing plays this season. Besides Thomas making some ridiculous catches in tight coverage over Alford and Brian Poole, the Saints’ offense couldn’t generate any explosive plays against a resolute defense.

What needed to be done against New Orleans’ offense was accomplished. Containing their running game and forcing them into third-and-long situations is essential towards beating them. As crazy as it may sound, challenging Drew Brees to throw the ball downfield is how defenses can stifle the Saints. The aging quarterback has lost arm strength in recent seasons. Combine that particular issue and a lack of poise in the pocket at times, Brees looked rattled against a swarming Falcons’ defense. Only converting on three out of ten third down situations indicates how much New Orleans struggled. They couldn’t adapt to life without their sensational rookie running back.

The Falcons’ defense continues to elevate their play in high-profile home games. It started against two superstar quarterbacks during their memorable playoff run. The rematch against Aaron Rodgers ended in a similar manner, as they made timely plays and generated constant pressure. Adrian Clayborn’s six-sack performance against Dallas put the league on notice in an eight-sack defensive explosion. With Matt Ryan suffering from his worst game of the season, the pressure was on them to keep the game within one-possession.

Not allowing any points on the last four drives of the game is how you keep your playoff hopes alive. Dontari Poe and Adrian Clayborn produced massive third down sacks. With Desmond Trufant breaking up a sure touchdown to Thomas, the defense made numerous plays in key moments. They didn’t miss many open-field tackles either. New Orleans used to make them pay for missing tackles and not generating any semblance of pressure. Although the front four didn’t come close to hitting Brees in the first half, they showed signs of life in the second half.

How the defense held it together involves the centerpiece of their defense. Jones was making plays all game long. Fans are used to seeing the speedy linebacker flying around the field. That doesn’t always necessarily lead to positive results. Jones does struggle getting off blocks. Taking on full backs head on isn’t a strength to his game. How the second-year linebacker continues to flourish comes from playing with a high football IQ. To pair top-level speed with outstanding instincts makes Jones into a legitimate playmaker, let alone a solid linebacker.

Jones filled the stat sheet with 13 tackles, three tackles for a loss, two passes defensed, and one game-sealing interception. As Payton started using more play action and misdirection concepts to scheme open receivers, Jones didn’t allow those plays to materialize into anything. He chased down Ted Ginn and Willie Snead on multiple plays to negate any possibility of a big gain. It was a kind move on Jones’ part to remind viewers that Snead actually played and remained respectful.

He followed up with some key tackles in the run game as well. Exploding past the Saints’ offensive line played a significant role in preventing Ingram from having a real impact on the game. Although Jones failed to bring down Ingram on the final drive, the rising star made up for it. Tracking Josh Hill down the seam and keeping his eyes on Brees allowed him to crush the Saints’ comeback hopes for the second consecutive season. A fitting end to the best performance of his young career.

Commitment to the running game

The other main element to beating the Saints comes from simply keeping their offense off the field. Controlling the pace and winning the time of possession battle provided much-needed relief. After having possession for 26 minutes against Minnesota, the Falcons needed to drastically improve in that department. They had the ball for nearly 35 minutes. A run-first approach allowed them to control the clock and frustrate a Saints offense that couldn’t adjust without their most explosive weapon. A 15 play, 90-yard drive set the tone for how Steve Sarkisian was going to attack them. They were going to remain balanced as usual, but slightly lean on a productive running game.

It didn’t result in an efficient performance, due to Ryan’s alarming showing. He looked jittery in the pocket for the second consecutive game and kept trying to force throws into coverage. After playing so well in November, he was fortunate to only throw three interceptions. It was shocking to see the reliable franchise quarterback be at the forefront of the Falcons’ problems in a must-win game. According to Pro Football Focus, Ryan completed four of ten passes under pressure with one catastrophic interception in the red zone. A desperate heave to Julio Jones summed up an infuriating evening for him.

The running game managed to carry the load. Sarkisian realized it was time for Devonta Freeman to take control. He looked terrific against Minnesota, yet only received 12 carries in his first game back from a two-game absence. They couldn’t afford to be over protective. Freeman needed the ball in his hands. Despite averaging 3.8 yards per carry, he was productive on 24 carries. Hitting the hole hard and challenging defensive backs at the second level put them in favorable second down situations. Tevin Coleman played his part by continuing to show a newfound edge to his game. An improved second effort helped him pick up 21 of his 32 rushing yards after contact. While both players continue to be disregarded in the passing game, they aren’t letting it affect them as ball carriers.

Questioning Quinn

For the second consecutive game, Quinn’s decision making has been doubted. The charismatic head coach decided to kick a field goal rather than go for it on fourth and four when facing a five-point deficit against Minnesota. Given the circumstances, it was an understandable decision. He didn’t face a similar situation, but was pressed into making game-changing decisions during the last two minutes of both halves. Managing the clock has proven to be an overwhelming challenge for some coaches. Quinn found out the hard way last Thursday night.

His inability to use timeouts put the offense at a complete disadvantage. It ruined their rhythm towards getting into field goal range. After Taylor Gabriel caught a ten-yard pass, 27 seconds remained on the clock. With two timeouts, Quinn chose to save them. It forced the offense to hurry up with 14 seconds and counting. To lose 13 seconds when your not in field goal range and have multiple timeouts in that situation is inexcusable. A booth review only made things even more confusing. A barrage of unnecessary moments forced Ryan to panic and Marshon Lattimore pounced on the opportunity. What should have been three points for the Falcons nearly ended up being three points for the Saints.

The decision to decline a holding penalty on third and one was another head scratcher. The Saints hired Payton in 2006. That translates into ten years (he was suspended in 2012) of him never showing the Falcons’ defense an ounce of respect. Quinn should have known that Payton doesn’t operate like most head coaches. Between an illegal formation penalty and Jones’ exceptional individual effort, Quinn is a lucky man. Who would have thought the Falcons would have to bail out their head coach and quarterback in the same game?

Looking Ahead

The Falcons are in prime position with three divisional games left. Although two of their last three games are on the road, they don’t have to worry about any other team. They control their fate, which is something every team wants in December. The return of Freeman and Trufant gave them a major boost last week. Both players will be pivotal in their pursuit of winning the NFC South again.

A well-deserved extended break gives them time to prepare for what should be a motivated Tampa Bay side. They play every team in the division to finish their lost season. Playing spoiler is something that Dirk Koetter will likely embrace.

The Falcons must handle their business, as a rematch against the Saints is already looming. They will obviously need to play better, but there isn’t much reason to examine their performance. It’s all about surviving (avoiding serious injuries) and winning on Thursday night. To achieve that following a hard-fought battle against the Vikings four days prior deserves appreciation.