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Falcons vs. Saints recap: An offensive offensive performance buries Atlanta again

It is fitting, in a way, that Sean Payton and company would deliver the coup de grace to this Falcons team.

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

Raheem Morris and the Falcons came into the second Saints game fighting to keep jobs. An organizational change at every level, from the front office to the coaching staff, is going to lead to a ton of changes to the roster as well, and every win and strong performance makes that kind of change a little less likely. In losing to the Saints 21-16, though, Atlanta made it clear that change is as inevitable as we all thought after the first five games of the season, and that the offense is unlikely to become unbroken this year.

The Atlanta defense remains a far better unit than they were earlier in the year, holding the Saints to just 21 points despite some very noteworthy lapses during this one. The offense, meanwhile, was once again a putrid mess that managed to do just enough to keep Atlanta in the game until the very end, but once again fell short in spectacular fashion. The upshot is that Arthur Blank and Rich McKay, who already appeared to be angling for a complete restart for the coaching staff, absolutely have an excuse to do so now that Atlanta has been humiliated at the hands of the Saints twice in 2020. Atlanta will not finish better than 8-8, and that’s probably a big stretch, meaning even Morris’s undeniably impressive work of rallying the team post-Dan Quinn’s firing and improving the defense won’t be enough to have him return in 2021.

Me? I think the Falcons actually figuring out how to put a decent defense on the field this year after all their struggles is something worth celebrating. That doesn’t mean I was delighted to see Atlanta’s lapses against Taysom Hill and the Saints, which helped ensure Atlanta would lose this one, but the Falcons having a better sense of who they can and can’t build on when it comes to that side of the ball in 2021 is something. The continued aggravation of seeing this team shoot themselves in the foot when they also aren’t a consistently great defense remains something I would love to see tucked away for good next year, especially against the saints.

Offensively, unfortunately, so much has gone awry. Firing Dirk Koetter this offseason will be a massive relief for Falcons fans, but until we get a new play caller in the door and see what they’re capable of with the personnel on hand and a few key additions, we really have no idea how good this offense can be. They’ve slid continually backwards since early in the season, with only healthy Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley consistently playing at a high level. Everyone else—from Matt Ryan to Russell Gage to Hayden Hurst and especially the running backs—have been shaky at times or for long stretches of the season, and I don’t think you can pin all of that on Koetter, even if I think you can pin a lot of it on him.

It’d be a lot easier to take a last second, narrow loss to a very good football team if it wasn’t the Saints, but the lack of consistency from this Falcons team and their troubling issues on offense aren’t just a problem posed when they play New Orleans. With four games to go, all we really know about this Falcons team is that we’re eager to see them get out of 2020 and start building something new. It seems inevitable now, even more so than it did in the bleakest early days of the season, that we’ll be headed for an all new front office and coaching staff in 2021, the first full reset of the franchise since 2008. There were many paths through the 2020 season, but being largely shut down on offense and occasionally humiliated on defense by the Saints not once but twice was not one any of us wanted to see.

New Orleans gets to keep moving on toward a top seed and a hopefully inevitable embarrassing playoff loss, but the Falcons are just trying to win one game at a time from here on out and prove they’re a good football team no matter what their losses to the Saints say about them. They’re running out of time to convince Arthur Blank and Rich McKay that many of them should survive an offseason purge.

On to the full recap, like the relentless march of time.

The Good

  • Julio Jones has been the offense multiple times this year, and in this one he accounted for something like 90% of Matt Ryan’s passing yards through the second quarter. He would come up with big catches all game despite limping off the field at one point, including a huge first down grab on third down in the fourth quarter as the Falcons were driving to get the lead, and remains the team’s most reliable offensive weapon.
  • Russell Gage had an ugly drop early and nearly got in a fight, but nearly getting in a fight against the Saints is actually kind of a badge of honor. Pair that with his extremely productive fourth quarter run against the Saints, which the team capped off with a touchdown grab, and all is more than forgiven. I’m still a believer in his talent even if the results have been inconsistent, but he’s going to need a very strong finish to the year to be the third receiver again under a new coaching stuff.
  • Ito Smith being completely uninvolved in the gameplan seems more and more egregious with each passing week. In this one, he ran hard and made the most of some iffy opportunities early before making a nice cut and managing 15 yards on a drive where the Falcons got their second field goal in the second quarter. He’s not the best blocker on the roster, but I have a hard time arguing he’s not the most useful runner and receiver with Todd Gurley looking so diminished.

Unfortunately, he also exited the game with an injury and might be done for 2020, making all that praise moot for the immediate future.

  • Calvin Ridley is legitimately terrific, and he reminded us of that over and over again in this one with difficult grabs in coverage. He finished as the only receiver over 100 yards and is a virtual lock to enjoy his first-ever 1,000 yard season, a cheery note in a down year.
  • Steven Means got hurt in this one but came back, and he had one of the best games of any Falcons defender. He sacked Taysom Hill twice and forced a fumble, a remarkable performance for a player who has been stone solid in an expanded role, and finished with the only two sacks of the day. He’s a player I hope will return in 2021.
  • Foye Oluokun and Deion Jones were once again all over the field making tackles and showing adept coverage instincts throughout much of the day, helping to keep the Saints from breaking even more big plays than they already did.
  • Younghoe Koo drilled a 53 yarder in the first quarter, extending his streak of made 50 yard kicks to four straight, tying an NFL record. He’s one of the few consistent bright spots for this Falcons team this year. He would hit one from 30 in the second quarter to bring Atlanta within one point and added one more before the half for good measure, and appears headed for one of the great seasons in Falcons history.
  • The Falcons were the rare beneficiary of some luck in this one, if we’re calling it that. They saw Will Lutz miss a short field goal due to injury and saw Jared Cook fail to reel in a catchable ball on 4th and 7 near midfield, which conspired to make it to 7-3 Saints despite their seeming dominance halfway through the second quarter. It would not end up making a huge difference in the outcome, but there’s little question the Falcons would’ve lost by more had those plays not gone the other way.

The Ugly

  • The offense is insanely embarrassing at times. The Falcons frittered their first two drives away with slow-developing passing plays and unproductive run plays, and they continued to do so throughout the first half, settling for three field goals despite having the opportunity to take shots at the end zone. The decision to re-hire Dirk Koetter is not the sole reason for this team’s many struggles on offense, but it has been far worse than even my most pessimistic projections would’ve predicted. Atlanta’s probably not going to fire him with four games left on the slate, but it’s not because Koetter’s doing anything to actually keep his job.
  • Matt Ryan hasn’t been the team’s biggest problem, but nor has he been his usual self of late. He had some shaky throws on Sunday against the Saints and a few more that were not quite on target, and finished the day with a single crisp touchdown pass, 273 yards in all, and a handful of really sharp vintage Ryan throws mixed in with 19 completions on 39 attempts and a couple of near-interceptions. Drops and tight coverage once again were factors in the day, of course.

If Ryan is no longer capable of elevating this offense on his best days, Atlanta will have to build around that in the offseason, but I still am not convinced that Koetter’s offense is not a huge part of his issue. We’ll find out, I suppose, once there’s a new offensive coordinator.

  • Todd Gurley was one of the best young backs in the NFL fairly recently, but he is not that guy in this offense, especially when he’s banged up. In this one, Gurley managed just 16 yards on 8 carries, with a couple of nice runs wiped out by sluggish work on other attempts, including the fateful 7 yard loss near the very end of the game. It is not clear whether he will be close to 100% the rest of the way, but with Smith down they could really use him at his healthiest. Even then, again, this offense just isn’t maximizing his abilities, and I expect this to be a short, largely unfruitful stint in Atlanta for him. At least we had the touchdowns.
  • Hayden Hurst is clearly talented and has had some strong games this year, but he’s gone cold of late. His chief value is as a receiving option for this offense, as he’s not a very consistent blocker, so the fact that he has just 5 catches for 57 yards over the past three games—just one catch for 9 yards against the Saints over two games—is not a small problem for a struggling Atlanta offense. The next coaching staff will likely want him here and will try to use his speed effectively, but Koetter appears to be out of ideas and Hurst’s sudden drops problem is another anchor on an offense floating to the bottom of the ocean.
  • Seeing Taysom Hill do this against them when he was so clearly incapable of being a quality player in a slimmed-down gameplan against the Broncos is frustrating. The Saints may well be right about Hill, but the fact that he’s been bad against capable Broncos defense and good against the Falcons twice is not enough to make that clear, and it is both typical and terrible that he would enjoy a quality start to his career against our favorite team.
  • Atlanta’s interior pressure was a problem early and often, but the Falcons made enough errors elsewhere to negate that fine work. The most notable miscue was what appeared to be a communication problem on Taysom Hill’s first career touchdown pass in the NFL, one where Tre’Quan Smith got wide open in the end zone. The secondary was the struggle spot throughout the day, with Michael Thomas getting open at will and the miscommunication issues already mentioned.
  • Drops were a problem all game, and on both sides of the ball. Ricardo Allen dropped an interception opportunity (albeit one that would’ve been negated by penalty), Russell Gage dropped a critical third pass down pass that would’ve resulted in a first down, and A.J. Terrell let another interception opportunity pass through his hands. Later, Calvin Ridley would not manage to come down with a touchdown grab from Matt Ryan, albeit one where he was shoved hard.

The Saints have enough talent and enough luck to win games without the Falcons not making the most of theirs, but that’s what keeps happening against Taysom Hill and company.

  • Officiating is officiating, but three crucial items got screwed up on the second Saints drive of the game. The first was a typically weak roughing the passer call on Grady Jarrett and the second was a failure to spot Taysom Hill going out of bounds on his 43 yard scramble on the very same play where it looked like Deion Jones was held without a call. Those two set the Saints up to take advantage and score a touchdown, which they did shortly thereafter.

The Falcons even got boned later on when the refs threw a flag on a 2nd and 8 where Ryan took a deep shot to Calvin Ridley and then picked it up, forcing a punt two plays later. The original call was probably borderline—for Marshon Lattimore, at least, that was not much contact—but it was aggravating to see.

The final annoyance was the decision not to put one second back on the clock to give Atlanta one more hail mary attempt to end the game, but for the sake of my sanity I’m electing to just skate by that one. The officiating also impacted the Saints—it was just a bad crew in a bad game—so these are just gripes at the end of the day.

  • Finally, a word for my least favorite sequence of the game. After a 2nd and 2 run failed for the Falcons, Dirk Koetter decided giving the ball to Todd Gurley again was a wise decision. That led to Gurley improbably losing seven yards on the play, setting up a 4th and 9 where Matt Ryan arguably missed an open Russell Gage and tried for Julio Jones in the end zone, which did not work. The decision to try the Saints not once but twice in a short yardage situation with a run—remember, New Orleans has one of the best run defenses in the NFL—was criminally bad and proved even more costly than I would’ve imagined had you told me that was the plan beforehand.

The call underscored how much trouble Koetter has in coming up with something clever and effective when the game is on the line, but it also underscores how hard it is to pin 100% of the blame on him when the execution of plays is also so lacking. The problem with the call was that the Falcons were unlikely to get a couple of yards against that Saints run defense after just going nowhere on 2nd and 2, but Gurley still has to make the best of that call by driving forward. The fateful decision to try to make something out of not a lot by bouncing it led to a seven yard loss, and the rest is history.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

I hate giving out MVPs for rough losses, especially when there isn’t a clear cut choice. I’m going to take this opportunity to hand one to Steven Means, who has never won one before and was one of the most consistently useful players out there Sunday.

One Takeaway

The Falcons have a legitimately improved defense that can at least put decent weeks together even when they make mistakes, but the offense is as weak as it has been in a long, long time.

Next Week

The Falcons will play the Chargers next week, and god only knows what that will look like. I need to learn to be numb. While you work on numbing yourself or simply wait for next Sunday, check out Bolts from the Blue.

Final Word