For the first time in years, there wasn’t any buzz for a game between the Falcons and Saints. One of the NFL’s best rivalries appeared to be nothing more than a lopsided game on paper. The Saints were one of the hottest teams in the league. They were getting back their superstar running back, along with their future Hall of Fame quarterback playing in his second game back from a serious thumb injury.
Although the Falcons were getting their star quarterback back from injury, it was about the only positive thing they had going for them going into the game. An abysmal season was bound to get only worse against their arch nemesis in one of the most hostile places in the NFL.
Not only did the season not get worse, it got astonishingly better. Dan Quinn’s team produced one of the best performances of his five-year tenure. They rattled Drew Brees like no other Quinn-coached team has done before. It was nearly as impressive as Mike Smith’s (and Mike Nolan’s) defense forcing Brees into five interceptions in 2012.
Despite not forcing a turnover, the Falcons shut down one of the most dangerous offenses in the league. They were able to get off the field on third down from generating legitimate four-man pressure, tight coverage, and excellent open-field tackling. Those are three terms that haven’t been used often to describe Atlanta’s defense this season. It was on full display in an emphatic victory.
Pass rush emerges
The Falcons entered this game with seven sacks on the season. They were facing an offensive line that allowed the fourth fewest sacks per game in the league. Based on previous matchups and how both teams were trending, most expected Brees to be comfortable in the pocket. It would have been considered impressive if the Falcons pressured Brees six times. To actually produce six sacks, including three on third down and one on fourth down, left everyone stunned. What was considered arguably the worst pass rushing unit in the league, they managed to elevate their play against a terrific offensive line.
Grady Jarrett has been the centerpiece up front since 2017. The star interior tackle continues to grow every year. After being largely known for his ability to create penetration and destroy running plays, Jarrett has taken considerable steps into becoming a productive pass rusher. His absurd burst, ability to obtain leverage, and relentless motor always made him a pass-rushing threat. Adding legitimate moves to his arsenal has helped establish him into becoming a certified all-around force. From his wicked swim move to vicious chop-club move, Jarrett produced five hits and two-and-half sacks to lead their assault on Brees. For the first time since the last time Atlanta won in Week 2, his teammates up front made integral contributions.
Adrian Clayborn, Vic Beasley, and DeVondre Campbell all recorded sacks. While some sacks can be attribute to outstanding coverage downfield, there were also moments of individual brilliance. Look no further than Clayborn bulldozing his way into a massive third-down sack. The versatile defensive lineman continues to make a difference in a utility role. It allows Quinn to manage Takkarist McKinley’s snaps, while using Beasley in a variety of ways. The embattled edge rusher put the finishing touches on a memorable defensive performance with a fourth-down sack of his own. By twisting behind McKinley’s interior push, he found an opening to emphatically drop Brees to the turf for the final time.
The coaching staff deserves significant praise for the six-sack showing. Jeff Ulbrich had taken over defensive play calling duties from Quinn. Although dropping Beasley into coverage is something they’ve done often over the years, it normally translated into opposing quarterbacks finding an open receiver downfield. In yesterday’s game, the Falcons never allowed a big completion on any of the plays Beasley dropped into coverage. They either produced a sack or forced Brees into a check down. It was not only rare to see the Falcons get off the field consistently on third down, but also for them to not allow any big plays from dropping eight into coverage. Both things have derailed them over the past two seasons. Ulbrich will receive well-deserved credit for their success. There is also another assistant coach who made a significant difference.
Organized and disciplined
Another notable improvement from yesterday’s stunning performance came from the entire defensive unit. They remained well organized and disciplined against one of the most dangerous offenses in the league. Unless Michael Thomas made an extraordinary play or beat Isaiah Oliver, Brees was unable to make many downfield throws. The openings were surprisingly not there. Even without Desmond Trufant, the secondary handled their assignments. Quinn’s decision to bring Raheem Morris back into a defensive coaching role appeared to have played a vital role in their success.
After being the wide receivers coach for nearly three-and-half seasons, Morris reverted to his defensive roots. His defensive expertise and warm personality always made him a player’s coach. When the decision was made to bring him back to help the secondary’s woes, analysts and fans approved it. That approval translated on the field with no major coverage breakdowns or reckless penalties being committed. Most of the penalties came from false starts by the offense. The defense made sure to put Brees into positions where he had to make tight-window throws. Instead, Brees refused to take many chances. He opted to check it down or take sacks. They made an aging quarterback look old with their organization and communication on the back end. Morris should earn some applause alongside Quinn and Ulbrich. Ricardo Allen certainly believes so.
The Falcons had two weeks to adjust and prepare for this divisional clash. They made their intentions clear by having Ulbrich and Morris take bigger roles within the defense. There was also a major personnel decision made in the secondary. Shifting Damontae Kazee back to free safety made a difference. The young defensive back never looked comfortable covering slot receivers. Inserting him back into a deep safety role alongside Allen allows him to showcase his ball-hawking skills more often. It was clear he was looking to make a statement with the way he was flying around the field. While replacing Keanu Neal isn’t possible, Kazee did what he could to be a tone-setter for a defense in dire need of one. How Kazee continues to grow, along with Kendall Sheffield taking a larger role, will be important for the young secondary’s development.
Promising signs for a struggling running game
With six runs and three passes on the first drive, Quinn and Dirk Koetter made it a point of emphasis to run the ball. They needed to bring balance to the offense, especially with Matt Ryan not playing in nearly three weeks. Not allowing Sean Payton to dictate the pace of the game was also another likely reason behind their early run-heavy approach. Although their success faded in the second half, they managed to create movement up front for Devonta Freeman to flourish.
Brian Hill managed to carry the load for the rest of the game. With Ito Smith out for the season, Hill will have an opportunity to prove himself in a bigger role for the second straight season. There are still questions about Hill’s vision, cutback ability, and lack of patience.
What remains encouraging is Koetter’s willingness to run more often. He also did a much better job of diversifying his run calls. Using more misdirection runs created space on the outside for them to be more productive. With Ryan looking rusty for most of the game, it was important for the offensive line to open running lanes to build sustainable drives. Both touchdown scoring drives were 17 and 13 play drives. It’s safe to say their main objective was accomplished.
Following an incredible upset victory, Quinn’s job status is secured for at least the next month. A definitive victory against an opponent as good as New Orleans merits it. The players are still playing hard for him. For them to show considerable improvement on both sides of the ball indicates adjustments have started to be made off the field and executed on the field.
Another divisional opponent is on the horizon. It happens to be another playoff-caliber team in the Carolina Panthers. There is uncertainty about their offense under Kyle Allen. The untested quarterback has looked erratic in recent weeks. What is certain will be Christian McCaffrey getting as many touches as possible. The Falcons did a tremendous job of limiting Alvin Kamara’s impact yesterday. A repeat performance against McCaffrey will be needed in order to pull off another road upset.