It normally doesn’t matter what the standings are. When the Falcons and Saints play each other, an intense four-quarter battle filled with chaos ensues. Each game is a rollercoaster ride of big plays and jaw-dropping moments to go along with stellar quarterback play. There are some instances where both defenses manage to elevate their game, as proven in both of last year’s meetings. It’s one of the NFL’s premier rivalries based on how much emotion and excitement is created.
On a rare occasion, none of the superlatives you associate with this rivalry were on display. A convincing one-sided New Orleans beating leaves the Falcons in complete disarray. It was the second straight year where turnovers and poor red zone execution plagued them in the Superdome. Unlike last season, they don’t have a defense capable of stopping offenses for an extended period of time. There was some optimism Dan Quinn’s desperate team could challenge one of the best teams in the league. The only thing that was evident is how much works needs to be done in Atlanta going into next year.
Manhandled in the trenches
With the national attention on Quinn and Matt Ryan, how poorly both lines played is being somewhat disregarded following the Falcons’ demoralizing loss. They were bullied on both sides of the ball. It’s understandable for the defensive line to get overpowered, given New Orleans’ status as a top-tier offensive line. How they managed to impose their will on the other side of the ball was far more stunning. By allowing a whopping six sacks and 15 hits on 53 drop backs, it was one of the most appalling performances from an offensive line this season.
Jake Matthews is the only offensive lineman currently playing above expectations. After having his contract extended last July, the under-appreciated left tackle has taken his game to another level in becoming one of the more reliable tackles in the league. His play is the only positive for what has been a nightmarish year on the offensive line. Ryan Schraeder continues to struggle badly in pass protection. Other than Robert Alford, no player has regressed more on the roster. He used to make up for his lack of athleticism with excellent positioning and a powerful punch. That hasn’t been the case at all this season. Cameron Jordan made him look like a sixth round rookie, particularly on this sack, as Schraeder was driven into the turf.
The right side of the offensive line was mostly responsible for Thursday night’s debacle. If Schraeder wasn’t allowing pressure, Ben Garland found himself on the receiving end of Sheldon Rankins’ rampage. The emerging star defensive tackle made Garland look foolish on multiple occasions. As hard as the backup versatile guard plays, there are limitations to his game. Facing above-average explosive interior tackles has given Garland fits in the past. For him to get beat so convincingly on multiple occasions will give Quinn something to consider. A lineup change wouldn’t be surprising following Quinn’s post game press conference.
On the other side of the ball, there weren’t any revelations. The front seven was helpless for the third consecutive game. Offenses continue to exploit Atlanta’s undersized nickel front, as Alvin Kamara found plenty of space in getting to the second level. Not having Deion Jones forces a group of mostly subpar or inexperienced linebackers into difficult positions. They don’t have the speed, instincts, or range to do what Jones does. That’s the cost of having such an undersized (and not very talented) group, along with bizarrely keeping Deadrin Senat inactive.
The coaching staff finally started implementing their version of NASCAR package to generate pressure. It failed to create much pressure, as New Orleans’ offensive line snuffed out their plethora of twists. Pairing Bruce Irvin with Vic Beasley and Takkarist McKinley has been a major letdown so far. The veteran edge rusher isn’t providing the spark they desperately needed up front. With Beasley rarely making an impact and McKinley struggling to evolve as an edge rusher, they needed Irvin to help elevate an underachieving unit. Instead, Jack Crawford and Grady Jarrett continue to be the only players generating any sort of consistent pressure.
More perplexing tendencies
For the third consecutive game, the Falcons failed to score more than 20 points. Their current issues are reminiscent of what they suffered from last season. After developing into one of the best red zone offenses in the league, they’ve badly regressed during this recent losing streak. It stems back to their issues up front. Not being able to run the ball traditionally in short-yardage situations has left Steve Sarkisian befuddled. The fact that Mohamed Sanu running the wild cat is their most reliable way to convert on third and short indicates how poorly the offensive line is playing.
Sarkisian’s play calling does warrant criticism. Similar to Quinn, he is continuing to depend on something that simply isn’t working. Quinn’s tendency of dropping eight into coverage on third down is becoming extremely problematic. It’s equally as frustrating as Sarkisian calling frequent runs out of shotgun on second and ten. The sight of Ito Smith getting immediately smashed on second and ten during the third quarter of a 21-point game felt like a symbolic moment.
Trying to occasionally catch a defense off guard with a draw to put your offense in a more favorable third down situation is understandable. When occasionally turns into repeatedly, there will be repercussions especially when your running game has been largely ineffective all season. Losing three fumbles in the red zone is something you can’t control. Depending on a low-percentage play call is something that can be controlled and fixed.
Merely hanging on doesn’t make it good enough
Forcing three punts, producing two sacks, and intercepting one pass can be considered as a decent showing by Quinn’s defense on paper. Only allowing 31 points to the hottest team in the league shows they made their fair share of plays. A collection of positive moments doesn’t convert into a good overall performance. They were extremely fortunate that Brian Poole wasn’t flagged for pass interference on Damontae Kazee’s league-leading sixth interception. They were also fortunate that Drew Brees and Sean Payton didn’t need to get out of second gear. Considering the history between both teams, Payton surprised everyone with a slightly more conservative game plan.
The slightly more conservative game plan still resulted in four passing touchdowns. Each touchdown pass went to a player most people never heard of coming into the game. It’s the beauty of New Orleans’ offense, along with the deficiencies of an overmatched defense. Despite having more possession in the end, the Falcons couldn’t get off the field defensively in the first half. Allowing drives of 75, 71, and 58 yards shows how they were completely outplayed. Sharrod Neasman’s superb touchdown-saving pass breakup saved them from further embarrassment, in only conceding a field goal on a staggering 15-play, 71-yard drive that went for over eight minutes. You can’t expect to beat an elite team by turning the ball over four times. The same applies when it comes to allowing prolonged drives in a game, where you need to score at least 30 points to win.
Barring something drastic, the Falcons are going to playing games in December without playoff implications for the first time during Quinn’s tenure. They were technically out of the playoff race in Week 16 during his first season. Although nothing is official at the moment, it’s hard to see how they can rectify what has transpired over the past three games.
A once-resurgent team sitting at 4-4 on a three-game winning streak appeared ready to make a playoff push. Jones returning to practice, along with the signing of Irvin created genuine excitement. That has quickly evaporated following three grueling defeats. Putting their intentions toward discovering who can be depended on in 2019 is the best approach for them going forward. Facing an unpredictable team like Baltimore should provide a strong test in what will be a strange final month of the season.