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Falcons - Saints recap: Joy is beating New Orleans

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The Falcons manage an unexpected effort.

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

Even in a lost year, beating the Saints is wonderful. When the Saints are one of the better teams in the NFL, it’s as sweet and nourishing as manna from heaven.

I harbored not-so-secret hopes that Atlanta would win this game, but I never thought they’d dominate it. After enduring eight largely putrid games, watching the Falcons absolutely destroy the Saints and hold them to just three field goals was simply magical.

The Falcons prepared for this game throughout the last two weeks, tweaking their coaching staff and admitting at last that the current way of thinking, planning, and executing simply wasn’t working. Dan Quinn finally, wisely handed play-caling duties on defense over to Jeff Ulbrich, the Falcons shuffled the coaching staff and personnel just a little bit, and Atlanta just planned to beat a Saints team that may have grown overconfident at 7-1. It’s beyond infuriating that Quinn did not understand the importance of making changes sooner—and it will and should be held against him at the end of the season—but the changes Atlanta made wound up making a massive difference in this one. It is still better late than never, particularly when the late comes in time for your favorite team to beat New Orleans.

For one game, at least, that made a huge difference. If the Falcons can’t be great, they can at least beat the Saints, and they spent four quarters befuddling and defeating their hated rivals in their home stadium in ways I simply would not have thought possible. Younghoe Koo nailed four field goals, Matt Ryan was sharp all day, and the blocking and pass rush alike were better than they have been at any point in the last 12 months or so. A win here doesn’t help the draft position and doesn’t turn Atlanta into contenders, but as a fan who has suffered through far too many awful games, it still felt damn good.

You should enjoy this one. We don’t know how many more wins are coming, and the day beating the Saints doesn’t feel great is the day we cease to be Falcons fans. On to the individual performances.

The Good

  • The Falcons, slow starters all year long, took it to the Saints to start this one. Dirk Koetter called a fake and handoff to Calvin Ridley to start things off and the team was off to the races. Devonta Freeman ran well, Kenjon Barner chipped in a big one, and the blocking up front looked as good as it has all year. The drive ultimately died on penalties (three of them!), but at least Younghoe Koo put the Falcons on the board.
  • The Falcons elected to make their passing game work around short, precise throws, which limited their big-play ability a lot but certainly kept them moving in the early going. Matt Ryan can still make that work to great effect, and he drilled Calvin Ridley, Devonta Freeman, and Austin Hooper with quality balls throughout the first half. While he did not have a statistically impressive day and missed a few passes—it’s fair to say this one could’ve been a true rout had he hit them—it was still a fine day within the gameplan.
  • Speaking of Matt Ryan, his scrambling ability has gone from a running joke to a legitimate skill over the last few seasons. He ran for two big first downs in this one, and paired with an effective day of passing despite his ankle issues, it was another quality day on the offense.
  • Brian Hill needs to stay on this football team. He’s fought his way back after being poached from the practice squad by the Bengals and has done nothing but produce when given the opportunity. In this one, he ran hard and effectively, and took advantage of an A.J. Klein slip to snag a touchdown catch in the fourth quarter to put the Falcons up by multiple scores. I’m proud of the improvement we’ve seen from him, and with Freeman and Ito Smith unfortunately dealing with long-term injury questions, he seems like a back you can count on.
  • Atlanta finally imposed their will on the ground, to great effect in this one. Devonta Freeman and Brian Hill (and heck, even Kenjon Barner) got rolling early, and Dirk Koetter elected to focus on short passes and runs to try to wear down the Saints defense. It worked, and more importantly, it chewed up a ton of time, limiting the Saints’ chances.
  • What a game for the offensive line. There were blips and hiccups along the way, but they finally did enough for the Falcons to win, allowing Dirk Koetter to execute a frankly ugly dink and dunk, run-heavy gameplan that worked to perfection.
  • Grady Jarrett had one sack, a half sack, and what amounted to a third one that Vic Beasley cleaned up, which is just given the stellar season he has had. Jarrett was relentless in this one and the usually stellar Saints offensive line could not keep him away from Brees at all.
  • Vic Beasley was active and involved all day, and he got 1.5 sacks against the Saints, including an absolutely beautiful spear of Brees in the fourth quarter to end the Saints’ last gasp drive. Beasley is a Falcons fan, and no matter how you felt about him heading into this effort, he stepped up big-time against a rival he surely wanted to beat.
  • A beautiful first quarter sack by De’Vondre Campbell, a capable pass rusher when given the opportunity and a man who hasn’t gotten enough opportunities this year. He absolutely bullied his way through the Saints to get to Brees and get a huge third down stop, holding the Saints to a field goal. Yes, Alvin Kamara slipped on the play, but let’s not pretend that wouldn’t have still been a touchdown in past weeks. Campbell was also solid in coverage all game, which brought me back to his best efforts from 2016 and 2017.
  • Adrian Clayborn came flying in for another tremendous third down sack of Drew Brees late in the second quarter, showing that he’s still a talented guy the Falcons should absolutely look to keep around beyond this year. He was chipping in all day long.
  • Kendall Sheffield looks ready for the opportunity. Pressed into major action again with Desmond Trufant unexpectedly sidelined, Sheffield’s coverage was consistently solid and he made some impressive plays on the ball, most notably against Ted Ginn in the third quarter. The Falcons may just have a building block at cornerback, which would be one major win in this largely lost season.
  • I don’t know if anyone enjoyed that win more than Damontae Kazee. He reportedly was exuberant (and likely talking to the Saints, their fans, possibly our fans, etc.) coming off the field and casually destroyed at least one Saints fan on Twitter after the game, but more importantly, he was amped up and delivering huge hits all day on the field, even popping Tre’Quan Smith’s helmet off at one point. He had a relatively quiet year until recently when he began to get more time at safety, but the swagger is very much back and the results are once again impressive.
  • Younghoe Koo is filling big shoes, so it was a huge relief to see him absolutely drill a 37 yarder on the first drive of the game, and then hit another one shortly before halftime, and then hit another, and then another. With his leg and seven games to go, he has a chance to make a strong case to be the team’s long-term kicker, and a 4-4 effort against the Saints plus a strong effort at a tackle on a kickoff will endear him to just about everybody. Hopefully he can keep it up.
  • There’s no point in denying that the Saints cost themselves repeatedly in this one, but that’s a positive note because it shows this New Orleans team is not exactly the juggernaut it has appeared to be up until this point. They had four hands to the face penalties and numerous mistakes in this one, but they also mysteriously failed to get Alvin Kamara involved or get Drew Brees additional protection as the Falcons began to tee off on him. The Falcons are unlikely to surprise New Orleans so badly on Thanksgiving, but they sure look like they could do this again.

The Ugly

  • No matter how many times it works, I’ll never been in favor of Dirk Koetter running up the middle on the first down. They just so rarely work out well, and the Falcons were repeatedly put into third and long situations on a day where they were trying to make it work with short passes.
  • The Falcons did not come out of this one more healthy than they started, given that Devonta Freeman and Damontae Kazee got hurt in this one and others like Kemal Ishmael were certainly banged up too. The Falcons showed yesterday that they have some real fight in them, but stacking up injuries isn’t going to help them keep that up. Hopefully both those guys are healthy next week, but it’s worth noting that Kazee did come back into the game.
  • I guess the Falcons could have played better in this one, but for one week at least, do we really want to litigate that? Dan Quinn ate a huge slice of humble pie over the past few weeks and has relinquished, partially or totally, almost all the duties he took on over the offseason in the hopes of either getting this team ready for a future without him or trying to coax this kind of performance out of them. Either way, hell, we had a good time.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

Grady Jarrett. Matt Ryan was stellar and did a lot of great work, but watching Jarrett cause so many problems and come away with 1.5 sacks felt so deserved because he has been the key defender all year.

One Takeaway

The Falcons aren’t dead, even if their record suggests they ought to be.

Next Week

The Panthers. If the Falcons can beat Drew Brees and the Saints at close to full capacity, they can beat the Kyle Allen-led Panthers, though I’d be hard-pressed to suggest they can keep up the same energy. Check out Cat Scratch Reader for more.

Final Word

Joy.