After six straight losses, the Falcons managed one of the biggest upsets of the 2019 NFL season on Sunday. Atlanta defeated their hated rival, the New Orleans Saints, 26-9 in a dominant performance on both sides of the ball. The defense was smothering, nearly doubling their season sack total with 6 sacks and holding the Saints to a 25% conversion rate on third down. Atlanta stuffed New Orleans on 3 fourth down attempts and held their rushing attack to just 52 yards.
On the offensive side, the Falcons controlled the clock and held the ball for an incredible 33:46—over 7 minutes longer than the Saints. While Ryan had a rather lackluster day overall, Atlanta made the plays they needed to make on third down—and, for the first time this season, on the ground—to hold on to a double-digit lead as time expired.
This game was a strange one for Falcons fans. Atlanta hadn’t attempted a game plan like this all season. The defense had been so bad that any attempt to control the clock usually fell apart by the end of the first half, where the Falcons were facing a double-digit deficit. The team had been depending on a league-leading passing offense attempting 40+ passes per game to even stay competitive in games with the defense allowing over 31 points on average.
All that changed on Sunday. The Falcons finally looked like the team we thought they’d be in 2019: a competent defense paired with a balanced offense that could get up on teams early and force them to pass. The talent was always there, but it was buried behind convoluted schemes and questionable personnel decisions. Finally, in Week 10, we got to see what this Falcons team should have been.
Dan Quinn was in a very difficult spot going into the bye week. Fans were calling for his head, and everything he had tried to fix the team simply wasn’t working. Quinn made the decision during the bye to fully relinquish his play calling duties as defensive coordinator, and also moved WRs coach Raheem Morris to a new role coaching the secondary. It was revealed this week that LBs coach Jeff Ulbrich had been calling the early down plays since Week 6, but as of this week Raheem Morris took over the play calling on third downs and two-minute situations.
As embarrassing as it had to be for Quinn to give up the job he claimed this offseason—and I’m sure that’s infuriating for some fans, myself included, to think about—it does show a great deal of introspection and the character of a good leader. Sometimes the best decision is to step down, and knowing when to delegate and when to manage yourself are very difficult skills to learn. This was the right choice, even if it was made far too late to have any impact on the outcome of the 2019 season.
It seems that the combination of new play calling and the impact of Raheem Morris’ coaching change made a huge difference against New Orleans. The secondary played a relatively mistake-free game for the first time all season, and it translated to several coverage sacks. Isaiah Oliver got a chance to play closer to the line of scrimmage, and even though he gave up a lot of yards and throws to Michael Thomas, the defense as a whole succeeded. Thomas failed to find the endzone, even in a furious attempt to pad the score at the end of the game.
On the offensive side, things were still not ideal, but they were good enough to win. Koetter seemed more willing to use play-action concepts, which translated to some big throws downfield. The run game was more effective than it’s been all season—though Koetter’s insistence on runs up the middle on early downs was frustrating and mostly a waste of a play.
Pass protection was stout, as the return of James Carpenter and Jamon Brown led to a mostly clean pocket for Ryan and only 1 surrendered sack—which came on a LB blitz. RT Kaleb McGary had his best game of the season, largely shutting down Saints star EDGE Cameron Jordan.
At the end of the day, it’s good to see this team put together a strong win against an NFC contender—even if the playoffs are almost certainly out of reach. The Falcons showed us what they could be, and maybe they aren’t as far away from competing in 2020 as we might have thought.
It also hammers home that the biggest issue with this team was coaching. Dan Quinn eventually made things right and gave up his duties, but it was far too late. Quinn does deserve some credit for finally making the necessary changes, but he also must take responsibility for the team’s failures under his leadership. The defense improving significantly after Quinn fully relinquished play calling is, quite simply, not something that will help his case to stay as head coach.
The big question now is whether or not the Falcons can sustain this level of play past this week. A gauntlet awaits, as Atlanta will now play four straight division games—at Carolina, Tampa Bay, New Orleans, and then Carolina at home. There’s an extremely narrow path to the playoffs out there for the Falcons—which involves winning out and the Saints and Panthers losing a number of games. I wouldn’t get my hopes up for that outcome, but there’s still a chance for this team to do some serious damage to the playoff prospects of New Orleans and Carolina.
I’m just glad this team finally put together a good, four-quarter performance. I’m also extremely happy it was against the Saints. This game may end up being a blip on the radar for the 2019 Falcons, but it’ll have been a very enjoyable blip.