The Falcons were 3-6, and so losing this game by itself would have more disappointing than crushing, so long as they managed to stay competitive. It goes without saying that they did not do so, instead losing an a fashion so embarrassing that Atlanta probably needs to revisit any and all talk of keeping their current coaching staff around.
The Falcons came into this game facing a nervous reserve quarterback with something like 20 NFL passes, and with New Orleans having to play this game minus their top cornerback. A loss would be disappointing but understandable, given that division games mean anything can happen, but they could simply not be outclassed by a depleted Saints team. Unfortunately for all of us, New Orleans went beyond simply beating them and embarrassed them despite their injuries. It’s not new and it’s not unprecedented, but it should not have happened.
This was a team that threw two picks, allowed Ryan to be sacked eight times, and gave the Taysom Hill the chance to complete multiple quality passes. Hill being better than anticipated was a blow by itself, but that combined with a truly awful offensive day day was enough to ensure the Falcons got blown out on the road, and a reminder that the Saints are well-coached team capable of responding to adversity and that the Falcons are...not.
It’s evident that the Saints are a good football team, something I knew coming into this, but I did think that Atlanta’s recent solid play and injuries on the Saints’ side would combine to keep the Falcons within striking distance. I was guilty of too much faith in a team that that still employs Dirk Koetter, who was utterly awful, and the Falcons defense, which needs more additions before it is able to be the impact unit that makes up for an awful day from the Falcons offense. In this one, basically nothing went well for Atlanta, while the Saints once again showed that they’re talented, coached team. It makes me sick.
This was a game where the Falcons had some key advantages, which ranged from Taysom Hill never having played quarterback for a full game to Marshon Lattimore being out at cornerback. At least staying competitive was a must despite New Orleans being a quality football team, but the Falcons couldn’t even manage that, look utterly disorganized and ultimately falling behind by two scores in the fourth quarter. They managed just three field goals and Matt Ryan and the passing game had one of their worst weeks in recent memory, putting to rest any question of this team putting together a miraculous second half run. With the 3-1 stretch and reports that the Falcons were strongly considering keeping the band together under Morris, this was a useful if painful reminder that a fresh start is still the very best bet for the Atlanta Falcons in 2021. I would prefer that this be the last reminder of that, because losing to the Saints just hurts more.
On to the full recap.
- The Falcons came out firing, as Ryan took a 46 yard deep shot to Calvin Ridley on the first drive and connected. Atlanta couldn’t afford to be timid against a depleted Saints defense and to their credit they weren’t, even if they didn’t score a touchdown. That last point would foreshadow what was to come far more than the first, but I will say that Dirk Koetter puts together a pretty opening drive.
- Grady Jarrett remains Grady Jarrett, as he got a half sack in this one and came close a couple of other times against Taysom Hill, who looked overmatched early before he settled in. If only we could clone Jarrett.
- Give Deion Jones credit for blowing in unblocked for another sack and having a solid day overall, and to Charles Harris for getting a third sack. The pressure was hit or miss but Atlanta still did a pretty good job of getting into Taysom Hill’s face. He just fared far better under pressure than I would have anticipated.
- That doesn’t mean he didn’t make mistakes. A lot of the crowing over Hill’s fortunes today ignores the fact that he had what should have been a costly fumble on a 20 yard run, where A.J. Terrell made a great play punching the ball out and Foye Oluokun managed the recovery. If only that had proven to be a turning point.
- Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage were essentially the offense today. Neither got open as much as you’d like given Matt Ryan’s struggles and Julio Jones’ absence, but Ridley had some very nice plays and Gage consistently found his way to quality gains
- Darqueze Dennard had a great game, despite one ugly penalty. He not only was strong in coverage and making great tackles, but also punched the ball out on a fumble that was ultimately overturned on review. He’s been easily my favorite free agent signing of the offseason, and a player the team should consider keeping around next year.
- Younghoe Koo continues to try for the most accurate season in team history, nailing a pair of kicks in the first quarter to make up for the Falcons stalling out badly on a pair of drives and then popping another one through late in the second quarter to put Atlanta up 9-3. He was the only Falcon who scored in the first half.
- Ryan did not have a great game. The pressure was on him much of the day, his options weren’t getting open quickly and Koetter’s always shaky play calling was working against him, but he sat back there too often in the pocket and absorbed an enormous number of sacks along the way, failing to complete a touchdown pass and clear 200 yards for the first time in 2020. HHis performance was rough no matter how effective the Saints pass rush was and no matter how long he went without Julio Jones, as even a couple of quick decisions to throw away the football might’ve prevented the Falcons from stalling out.
It’s still hard to hold him primarily responsible for this team’s woes in this one, but if your starting quarterback throws two picks, doesn’t clear 200 yards, and takes a number of sacks while scanning the field, he can’t exactly escape blame either.
- The offensive line was simply overmatched. I blame Koetter—again, we’ll get to that shortly—but the Falcons allowing 8 sacks is not merely a Matt Ryan issue, especially when a quiet Cam Jordan piles up three of those. The offense was simply bad more or less across the board against the Saints, and letting anyone escape blame for that is probably a mistake. There was some very, very poor blocking on display, especially late. and allowing six sacks on third down when you know pressure is coming is just poor football.
- The run defense has been a strength almost all year, but in this one they had real trouble at times containing the Saints, and it was costly. On the Saints second drive, they allowed Deonte Harris to bounce outside for a 20+ yard gain and set up a Saints field goal, even if they tightened up nicely near the goal line. Hill was able to score twice on runs and the Saints keep drives alive with 168 yards total, so it was not a banner day for them at all.
- I think if you told anyone that the Falcons held Hill to under 250 yards passing and zero touchdowns, you would’ve assumed Atlanta was at least close to winning. That was not the case, because the defense also only made Hill throw five incomplete passes all game, welcoming him to a starting job in the least challenging fashion imaginable. I don’t think Hill was great—Saints fans will probably find that out the hard way against superior defenses—but Atlanta’s inability to shut down a player making his first career start was unbelievably dispiriting. Hill was also, to be as fair as I possibly can be, far more accurate and poised in the pocket in this game than I would’ve anticipated based on his very limited history as an NFL passer, and between the plays he made with his legs and the plays he made through the air, he did enough to sink Atlanta.
- The one thing the Falcons could not do was allow Hill easy completions, and yet they gave Michael Thomas 9 completions for 104 yards, a key factor in the team’s success. Gahhhh.
- For all that, the Saints only scored 24 points. For that alone, Dirk Koetter needs a sustained glare. The Falcons repeatedly put themselves in a position to score, only to watch Koetter pucker his Koetterhole and choose early down runs and slow-developing pass plays. The Saints pass rush didn’t help, but the fact that Koetter can’t maximize the talent on his hand means he should be gone next year even if Raheem Morris does return.
The frustrating part of all this is that Koetter’s issues have been known for years and he was the only coordinator not to be re-assigned or fired after Dan Quinn was pushed out. I understand the Falcons feeling like they didn’t have many options to take over despite the presence of Greg Knapp, but their glaring inability to take advantage of scoring opportunities was a factor long before they only scored three field goals against New Orleans. His presence and inability to conceive of a way to get Matt Ryan clean and help get the ball out more quickly, paired with his insistence on an aggravating number of unproductive runs, were still the biggest reason Atlanta lost this one. I did think the Falcons would be able to pass effectively in this one, which is an embarrassment I’ll live with. There was no excuse for Atlanta to put up well under 300 combined yards, however, and the bulk of that falls on an offensive coordinator who saw this New Orleans team execute the same defensive gameplan in 2019 to great effect and adjusted..well, apparently not much.
- Emmanuel Sanders got away with a big push on Deion Jones. I don’t know what else to say about that, but officiating was hardly the primary reason Atlanta lost and so this belongs as the last note, minor note on the day.
The Falcons gave us a nice little stretch but their fortunes against quality football teams will clearly be mixed, if not downright awful. The fact that it took the hated Saints to prove that out is not ideal, but at least our illusions were short-lived and we can go back to talking about just making through each week until the end of the season.