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Falcons - Saints Week 9 recap: Nothing worthwhile is easy

Atlanta nearly gave it away, but getting a win against the Saints remains beautiful.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The Saints were fresh off a big win against the Buccaneers, one where they lost Jameis Winston and still carried the day. The Falcons entered this contest on the heels of an ugly loss to the Panthers, one where they were mostly healthy and still dropped one in a listless effort against divisional rival. I was hopeful the Falcons could win a close one, but I was not optimistic about it, especially in New Orleans. I was happily wrong about the outcome.

Atlanta’s football team is an emotional roller coaster on a weekly basis, but they really took it to extremes this week. The Falcons stumbled around in the early going, but eventually built a massive lead that would’ve seemed insurmountable if they were literally any other franchise. They then blew that lead, falling behind by a single point to a Saints team that steamrolled them in the fourth quarter with just one minute left. They then won the game, but not without a near-miss with a Mike Davis fumble the team managed to recover, thanks to Younghoe Koo banging home a short field goal try to give them a 27-25 victory.

In the days and weeks and months ahead, this win will take on legendary status in this rivalry, given how stressful it was and how beautifully it ended. In the immediate aftermath, if it was possible to feel much of anything at all, the dominant feeling was relief that Atlanta didn’t blow it against their most hated rivals and instead sent the fans in the Caesars Superdome home unhappy. Matt Ryan was pretty damn close to flawless, the defense had impressive moments, and Olamide Zaccheaus and Cordarrelle Patterson put forth heroic efforts to help this team get the win, and it all added up to a razor-thin victory that brings the Falcons back to .500 and leaves the Saints reeling.

With a little time and distance, that will look absolutely beautiful, as it should. In the here and now, it’s chaos, but chaos you can love.

It almost seems ridiculous to talk about big picture takeaways and where the Falcons go from here, because this felt less like a football game and more like two unknowable Lovecraftian horrors fighting outside of time and space for stakes that mortal minds can’t comprehend.

Suffice to say the Falcons toughed one out, they got a win when it really counted against a team we all hate, and that’s enough for one week. Once I’ve processed this, I intend to just enjoy the hell out of it, and I hope you do too.

On to the fuller recap.

The Good

  • Let’s start with A.J. Terrell. The Falcons knew they’d take some heat taking him over some of the other players and cornerbacks on the board, but now that selection looks like Thomas Dimitroff’s final masterstroke. He had a couple of lesser moments in this one, but in between, he was batting down passes and locking down his man and helping out as a defender against the run. The Falcons have very few building blocks on defense, but it’s awfully nice to know he’s one of them.
  • Cordarrelle Patterson is the greatest. He couldn’t get anything going on the ground, but that doesn’t matter when you reel in six catches for 126 yards — including an absolutely incredible 60-plus yard catch and run from Matt Ryan with less than one minute to go and the game on the line. Nobody has been more consistent or more dynamic for Atlanta this season than him, and Patterson continues to be the absolute bargain signing of the NFL offseason, as well as this team’s most important weapon. I hope he’s back next year.
  • Olamide Zaccheaus had the kind of day I was hoping for against the Panthers, but turbocharged. He scored twice in this one, making savvy grabs on nice routes in the end zone, and also caught a deep ball downfield to set up another scoring drive. It was everything you wanted to see from him after the Falcons receivers were non-factors last week, and proof that he can at least be a capable third receiver with further refinement.

He’s maddeningly inconsistent at times, but his speed and ability are evident when he’s on — and thankfully Zaccheaus was on in this one. If he can build on this he won’t lack for a major role in this offense going forward.

  • Russell Gage went from targetless to most-targeted in the span of one week. In this one, he was making vintage touch catches just beyond the first down marker and hanging in while taking big hits, and he even through a (completely-needless-but-still-fun) leap. it was good to see him involved and productive.
  • Jaylinn Hawkins continues to look like a player who has taken a massive leap in his second season, with a key pass breakup and quality coverage in the early going. He was joined on Sunday by Erik Harris and Duron Harmon, who both had pretty good games on balance, with Harmon delivering some big plays in coverage and Harris as a run defender and blitzer. If this safety group continues to make real strides, it’s going to make a huge difference for the defense.
  • Steven Means has been one of Dean Pees’ guys, his durability and reliability making him a favorite for the veteran defensive coordinator. What Means hasn’t had is a ton of big plays, but in this one he scooped up and returned to set the Falcons up to score.

He was declared out with an injury after the play, though, and we just hope he’s okay. Huge kudos to him for the heads-up play.

  • Give James Vaughters a ton of credit for the big play that set up that recovery by Means, as he destroyed Trevor Siemian and forced the fumble. The Falcons clearly like him, and a play like that will help to keep him on the active roster and part of the rotation at outside linebacker.
  • Grady Jarrett is always there to play. In the early second quarter, he had a key run stop and then destroyed Deonte Harris on back-to-back plays. Throughout the day he was in the backfield and causing problems even if he wasn’t making tackles. The defense still works in large part — if not primarily — because Jarrett is so good up front.
  • Speaking of big days by defensive linemen: Anthony Rush genuinely impressed on a day where he was called up from the practice squad to help the run defense. He consistently occupied blockers and made an impact by out-muscling blockers and getting into the backfield, showcasing real strength and acumen as a run stopper. If that wasn’t just a fluke, I’d push hard to get him on the active roster sooner than later.
  • Younghoe Koo with a game-winning kick? You just expect it at this point. Despite his miss a week ago, Koo has been hyper-reliable, and I had no doubts he’d hit the game-winner Sunday.
  • Matt Ryan’s mobility is underrated and has been for years. In this one, he had more than one nice scramble and escaped pressure to keep plays alive, with the most noteworthy play definitely being the juke he put on Demario Davis to pick up a first down. I write that knowing full well that he also scrambled for a score. There are so many good scrambling quarterbacks in the league and Ryan doesn’t stand out in that pack, but the idea that he’s defenseless in the pocket is ridiculous.

Oh, and I’m burying the headline here. Matt Ryan was once again extremely crisp as a passer, hitting Kyle Pitts, Cordarrelle Patterson and Olamide Zaccheaus downfield repeatedly and continuing to look sharp and smart as a passer despite plenty of pressure. Ryan is thriving right now, and he only seems to be getting more dangerous as the weeks roll on.

The Ugly

  • There were a few major mistakes in this one, including a Matt Hennessy holding call, the Kyle Pitts drop, the heart-stopping Mike Davis fumble Atlanta recovered, and Tyeler Davison’s brutal fourth-down encroachment, and I’m just glad we’re not talking about those as the mistakes that lost the game.
  • Arthur Smith and company repeatedly made surprising decisions when it came to the run, which didn’t stand a chance against a stout New Orleans defense. Repeatedly the team wasted downs on rushing attempts up the middle that were immediately swallowed up, none more infuriating than a fourth-down attempt after a bad spot in the second quarter that featured Atlanta giving Davis the ball on a handoff three yards behind the line of scrimmage. The Falcons carried the ball 25 times for 34 yards, and aside from the Ryan scrambles, very few of those carries ultimately felt productive in light of the great Saints run defense.

One of our huge complaints with Dirk Koetter was that he seemed to throw away plays on runs because he felt he had to run the ball, not because he had any particular plan to do so effectively. There was way too much of that from this team on Sunday — and while I understand why teams want to establish the run, there is a time and place where you have to admit it’s not working out and be willing to lean on the passing game that is excelling for you.

  • I understand the Feleipe Franks experiment. If your development pays off, you have a very big, very fast man who can potentially play multiple roles for you, and Arthur Smith is clearly hoping to end up with just that.

The problem is that right now, Franks is only in on a handful of plays per game, and none of them seem all that compelling. That’s a bit frustrating given that you have to park another player to carry Franks as a member of the active roster, but it’s somewhat defensible if you think you have a good plan for him and that the time in live game action will translate to bigger and better things for him.

The more alarming item was that Franks, who hardly ever handles the ball, was in a position to do so on a drive where the Falcons were trying to move the ball, grind down the clock and eventually walk out of New Orleans with a win. It is not Franks’ fault that he didn’t have much chance on his play, nor is it his fault that the Falcons couldn’t make anything happen on the next two plays and ultimately had to punt. It is a decision that underlines and bolds the concerns I’ve seen from quite a few fans that Smith and company make odd decisions in important moments that could hurt this team’s chances of winning games, as it very nearly did in this one. There may come a time where we applaud Smith for throwing Franks in there at the end of a game in a crucial situation because he got a brilliant plan for him, but we’ve yet to see it.

  • The run defense at least had moments as the game went on, but in the early going New Orleans basically moved the ball at will. Teams will continue to go right at this defense until they prove capable of stopping it for four quarters, and the hope is that the encouraging performances from Grady Jarrett, Anthony Rush and company will carry over.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

There are many deserving candidates here, but I’m giving this one to Matt Ryan. He just kept making big-time throws over and over again, and he did while also scrambling for a few key gains and a touchdown along the way, avoiding any costly turnovers and doing his utmost to beat the Saints. The Falcons may be a work in progress, but Ryan isn’t, and that’s going to do a lot to keep this team afloat on a weekly basis.

One Takeaway

Hatred for the Saints can make you do incredible things. Now to just bottle that and apply it like cologne on a weekly basis.

Next Week

A very tough matchup against the Dallas Cowboys, which suddenly doesn’t seem quite impossible anymore. Check out Blogging the Boys for more on this week’s upcoming opponent.

Final Word