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Falcons - Saints Thanksgiving recap: Birds cooked as they drop to 3-9

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Despite heroic efforts by a handful of players, the Falcons dig a deep hole and can’t climb out of it.

New Orleans Saints v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

We knew that it would be tough for Atlanta to repeat their 26-9 victory over the Saints. New Orleans would be more ready this time, for one thing, and the Falcons were down Julio Jones and Austin Hooper, and were fresh off the kind of crushing loss against the Buccaneers that rung alarm bells throughout the greater Atlanta metro area. Hope was alive just because of how they typically play the Saints, but as it turns out, it shouldn’t have been. The real turkeys were the Falcons, and those of us at home and in the stadium for watching them.

Atlanta spent the first half blowing too many chances. A pretty Matt Ryan touchdown to Jaeden Graham and a good long Younghoe Koo field goal did not in any way erase the fact that it took them 40 plays to score 9 points, nor that Koo missed another field goal and extra point before that. The second half saw things worsen, with the Saints going up by 11 and Matt Ryan tossing a freak pick (but still poor decision) to a defensive lineman. The defense was game again in this one, getting multiple stops against New Orleans, but the offense wasn’t even close to being good enough to keep them in the game.

Matt Ryan has vocal detractors who typically disappear 12-15 games of the season, but they were justifiably out in this one. Ryan turned the ball over three times in the game, spoiling the remote chances the Falcons had of catching up to the Saints here. It was the polar opposite of the last performance against the Saints, as New Orleans rung up the points (though the defense was still pretty good) and the offense was utterly ineffectual. That finally changed late in this one, with Atlanta managing a touchdown strike to Russell Gage, a successful onside kick, and the a series of scrambling strikes from Ryan leading to a field goal, but it just wasn’t enough to carry them by New Orleans. It did at least provide some entertainment, but frankly we don’t want entertainment so much as we want wins.

It was an embarrassing loss that should close the book on the Dan Quinn era in Atlanta, even if it takes another four games for Arthur Blank to actually do it.

The Falcons have nowhere to go from here but meekly into the offseason with an eye on improving. They stink out loud, they need fresh voices on the coaching staff and in the personnel department, and they’ve got to make improvements to the roster to at least try to set their offense up for success and their defense for better days. So much has gone wrong—and our trust in this team’s ability to get it done has been so eroded—that nothing short of a significant re-tooling will make anyone happy. They won’t rebuild—sorry, Matt Ryan and Julio Jones trade enthusiasts—but they’re not a couple of pieces and some motivational slogans away. If Blank still thinks otherwise, he’s going to have to get used to tumbleweeds in the seats of Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the foreseeable future.

On to the full recap.

The Good

  • Matt Ryan to Jaeden Graham was just pretty, and a momentary reminder of what these Falcons are capable of. That seems to be all they’re able to offer us at this stage of the game, but that play action and that sharp ball in the end zone to the athletic backup tight end was still sweet.
  • Christian Blake was a rare bright spot on offense, as he kept making nice grabs and drawing calls against a Saints team that was mysteriously unable to slow him down. He’ll likely get a longer look because of that, though Russell Gage (4/47 and a touchdown) also had a very solid day.
  • Calvin Ridley stepped into this game as the undisputed #1 option in the passing game, and delivered a fine effort with eight grabs for 91 yards. Ridley wasn’t perfect, but he was excellent against Lattimore and Apple at times and can clearly be the #1 guy in this offense if he needs to be, especially if Dirk Koetter has a better plan than “Matt Ryan drops back and scans the field very slowly to see who might be open.”
  • De’Vondre Campbell is enjoying his best three game stretch of the year, at least in terms of big plays. In this one, he managed a killer pass breakup later in the game to stop a Saints drive cold, and that followed two straight weeks with interceptions. It’s not a coincidence that the defense has been a bit better three out of the last four weeks as Campbell has been improving. He and Deion Jones—who had the lone quarterback hit of the game on Drew Brees—are integral players when they’re rolling.
  • The defense did a lot, and despite the point total, the Saints have to be wondering how their offense could be so average against such a lackluster opponent. Despite three Atlanta turnovers, New Orleans largely settled for field goals, and Atlanta clamped down hard late in the game to give them a puncher’s chance at the late rally, even though they ultimately blew it. That’s three good-to-great defensive efforts in four weeks for Atlanta, which will hopefully have something to build on for that side of the ball even while the offense continues to engender doubt.
  • Younghoe Koo’s missed field goal and extra point were very costly, but he redeemed himself later in the game by booting two field goals and somehow managing two successful onside kicks in a row. They were both beautifully bounced by Koo to give Foye Oluokun a shot at them, and the linebacker and ace special teamer picked up one and got a hand on the other to give Kemal Ishmael a shot at it. Getting two straight onside kicks—technically three, since a questionable offsides call on Russell Gage erased the first one Koo tried—is a hell of an accomplishment in an otherwise soon-to-be-forgotten week. Give Oluokun particularly huge props for making two incredibly intelligent, difficult plays on the kinds of kicks that are usually so difficult to corral.

The Ugly

  • The first drives of the game were absolutely hideous. The Falcons saw Matt Ryan sacked immediately, a run on 2nd and 17, a short pass on 3rd and forever, and a blocked Ryan Allen punt. The Saints scored a few plays later on a short pass to Taysom Hill, ensuring that happiness would elude me despite an otherwise solid Thanksgiving. Things got much worse from there, somehow.
  • Matt Ryan has not had his best season. I think by and large he has still played quite well, but he’s been a little slow to offload the ball at times, and his off-target throws at others have been a part of the problem on offense. In this one, in particular, Ryan probably didn’t have many open looks but still took unnecessary hits and made poor throws, including a pick to an undrafted free agent where Matt Ryan got stiff-armed to the ground trying to make a tackle. He added to the team’s woes with another pick and a head-slapping fumble at the end of a scramble for a first down, marking perhaps his worst game of the year. With chances late in the game he pulled it together and started making crisp throws, but it was too little too late, and the offensive line utterly collapsed to ensure he wouldn’t really get the chance.

There are many reasons to give him a pass, given all the other challenges this offense is facing, but he’s supposed to be able to do more with the less he has than this. The great concern with Ryan and all quarterbacks around his age has to do with decline, but I don’t think Ryan is going downhill physically or mentally all that much, if at all. We’ll see how he fares in the coming weeks, especially if Julio and Hooper return.

  • Dirk Koetter has to go. I appreciate that he did some fine work with Matt Ryan in the post-Mularkey era but there’s no way this offense should get another year, not when Koetter is out here wasting downs like the Falcons can afford to do so. Considering their defense is missing so many plays and their kicking woes are ongoing, the offense can’t be a problem. It just can’t, and the Falcons can’t keep calling so many unproductive runs. The Falcons find themselves in holes they just can’t dig out of, and Koetter’s inability to make necessary changes on the fly leave the Falcons struggling again and again.

On Thursday night, the Atlanta's backs ran 23 times for 68 yards, or under three yards per carry. Matt Ryan scrambled for 21 yards on three carries by himself, making him many times more productive than the rushing attack, even if he fumbled. The line can’t block well enough and the backs on hand aren’t elite players who can overcome that, but Koetter is still running that many times in a game with the Falcons down by double digits, and often in early down situations when teams know it’s coming.

  • Speaking of the offense, the offensive line was once again an embarrassing mess, but this time it was atrocious to an extent we haven’t seen yet. They allowed nine sacks Jake Matthews has put two of his worst games on tape in consecutive weeks, which has to be concerning given how vital he is to this team’s current and future plans. James Carpenter got hurt, too, and the rest of the line was hardly stellar in pass protection as Ryan absorbed several sacks and big hits along the way. That went from bad to worse late in the game when the Falcons were obviously passing to try and catch up, as Kaleb McGary in particular and others

Until the line actually improves—and that might be next year, with a healthy and more experienced Kaleb McGary and Chris Lindstrom—the offense won’t be operating at capacity. At least the run blocking was a bit better, but that was a small consolation given that when the Falcons were embarking on a remarkable rally opportunity, Ryan was still getting sacked left and right.

  • Younghoe Koo had been beyond solid in his first three games, but he fell apart in this one. Koo missed an extra point by a mile and missed a field goal by inches in the first half, and considering the Falcons were down 10-6 after that missed field goal, that was a very big deal. What he did the rest of the game probably keeps him out of danger for the moment, but the team has not shown a ton of patience with special teamers who screw up this year, and Koo can’t afford many more miscues.
  • Dan Quinn is getting fired, and the only question again is whether Arthur Blank has finally run out of patience or not. He can either ride out the last four games before Blank cleans house or the team can make the inevitable move now to give the fanbase some scraps of red meat, but either way the 3-9 record and the piss poor performance against the Saints on national television has doomed him. There is no way he can save his job at this point, and as unfortunate as that may be, it’s absolutely the right way forward for the franchise. The front office is also in deep trouble after handing out contracts and making draft picks who have somehow made this line even worse than it was a year ago.

I wish it had worked out differently for so many reasons, but this year was supposed to be the return to form for these Falcons. The fact that the form they’ve returned to is the 2014 Falcons is a big disappointment.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

There are actually some compelling choices here, but I’ll give to onside kick hero Foye Oluokun because I can.

One Takeaway

This team is not getting better.

Next Week

A Panthers rematch, this time at home. The Falcons might actually win that one, but at this point even I’m past caring about the final scores of these games.

Final Word

Disappointment.