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Falcons vs. Saints recap: A different kind of more of the same

Atlanta once again lost a close game, just with a few expected and unexpected wrinkles along the way.

Atlanta Falcons v New Orleans Saints Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

If I had told you going into this game that Desmond Ridder would pass for under 100 yards and the Saints would score 21 points, your guess would likely have been that Atlanta lost this one. The exact manner of the loss—how close it was, how dominant the ground game ended up being, the heroism of individual defenders in a tough effort after a shocking pregame injury knocked out Dean Pees—would have been difficult to outline.

It was more of the same from the Falcons, albeit with a slightly different cast of characters. They once again lost a close game—they’re 4-7 in those this season, one year after going 7-2—and they once again dropped a divisional game they really wanted to win despite some late defensive feistiness. The difference this time was who was leading the backfield, with Tyler Allgeier dominating instead of Cordarrelle Patterson, and the way the defense really did settle down after an awful start. Oh, and Ridder was under center for the very first time.

We’ll cover that effort in more detail below, but suffice to say Ridder looked like a rookie quarterback who has a lot of work ahead of him, with a gameplan that didn’t help him settle in early and some real misses through the air in the first half. Despite that, he rallied in the second half to deliver a better effort, and Tyler Allgeier’s massive breakout game in conjunction with that gave the Falcons 18 points, which sadly was a higher scoring output than they’d managed in four of the five weeks before that.

Combined a better effort from the defense, which had shaky stretches but allowed just one touchdown after a brutal opening stretch where New Orleans raced out to a 14-0 lead, and you had a mediocre-plus effort that probably should have been enough to give the Falcons the victory against a Saints team in the middle of their own prolonged slide. The Saints were, painfully, just better and able to make more of their chances.

This has been the story of the Falcons season, though, and we know now what I think we all should have reminded ourselves: That Ridder isn’t going to change that. There’s a shortage of talent at key positions, a handful of limiting injuries, and a need to put together gameplans that don’t let the Falcons get into holes in the first place. The fact that it was against the Saints and evened the all-time series made this extra painful and caused me to take out some anger on some ice in my driveway with a baseball bat, but it also reinforced just how critical this 2023 offseason is. Nothing short of a combination of money, draft picks, and smart moves are going to lift this squad higher than this.

That loss coming off a bye was sobering but a reminder of what’s truly at stake and what truly matters now. There are still three games left, and everything has to be about try to play competitive football while zeroing in on improvement from Ridder and more work for Allgeier, Drake London, Troy Andersen, and other young players expected to be factors next year. None of that is going to necessarily make for fun Sundays, but at 5-9 and with no big moves coming to improve this roster in the here and now, it will be about progress. We’ll want to see notes that makes us think this 2022 draft class can be impactful next year—we’ve already seen plenty—and ideally that Ridder is the quarterback of the future. If not, well, that’s sobering and a reminder of what’s ahead, I suppose.

On to the full recap, as is tradition.

The Good

  • Lorenzo Carter had been quiet for a long time, but he got rolling in this one. On a key third down—it can only be so key when you’re down 14-0, but still—Carter came up with the sack on Andy Dalton that he split with Grady Jarrett to end a drive that would’ve made the Falcons in an awful position. Then he came up with the ball on a fumble inside the 20 for the Saints, ending a drive that almost certainly would’ve ended in New Orleans points otherwise. A solid enough player much of the year despite his lack of big splash plays in recent weeks, Carter finishing the season strong would help him return to Atlanta in 2023.
  • On a day where the Falcons seemed hesitant to lean on the run early, Tyler Allgeier forced the issue with some very nice runs, and wound up having his best day of the year thus far. Allgeier was decisive, physical, and alarmingly fast, and by the time the Falcons had closed the gap to 21-18 in the fourth quarter, he was averaging 8.8 yards per carry with 14 carries for 123 yards, a touchdown, and a two point conversion. I’ve been a big Allgeier booster all year, but this was the game that convinced me he can truly be this team’s feature back in 2023.
  • Even on a much quieter day, Cordarrelle Patterson still cashed in a couple of nice runs, including a long touchdown that brought the Falcons within striking distance.
  • If all you needed to do to win was run the ball, this would be an offensive line you’d roll with until the end of time.
  • Drake London unsurprisingly was a frequent target for Ridder on Sunday, and he won most of his contested chances against the Saints. His fumble at the end of the game—more on that later—was backbreaking, but he also was easily the team’s most reliable target and came up with one of his better days of the season with seven grabs for 70 yards. Don’t be surprised if that’s a pretty consistent floor for him the rest of the way as Ridder leans heavily on his fellow rookie.
  • Rashaan Evans had a huge sack that at least gave the Falcons a shot at winning the game, taking down Andy Dalton deep into Saints territory on a third down late in the game. Like Carter, Evans hadn’t exactly come up with a bunch of huge plays in recent weeks, but that one was as big as they come, and at a moment that should have mattered more than it ultimately did.
  • It was an uneven day for a secondary that let far too many frustrating moments slip by, but Dee Alford, Jaylinn Hawkins, and A.J. Terrell all showed physicality and ball skills in forcing Dalton incompletions along the way. On a day where Dalton (and frustratingly, Taysom Hill) largely did what they wanted, those plays had an outsized impact on a game that could’ve gotten entirely out of hand.
  • KhaDarel Hodge had multiple big plays on special teams in this one, coming up with a couple of key tackles on returns that otherwise might’ve been hugely productive for New Orleans.
  • Bradley Pinion did a good job with a lot of work today, pinning the Saints inside the 20 three times on five punts. I’ve said I think he’ll be back next year and I’ll stand by that.
  • Some will call it clearing a low bar, as I’m well aware a fair number of fans think the talk of improvement and resilience is a lot of hokum delivered in a big dirty spoon, but Ridder’s progress on the day is worth mentioning. After failing to connect on his first four passes, Ridder settled down a bit and delivered some nice balls along the way, most notably that tight throw to Drake London on fourth down with the game on the line, a big-time throw in a stressful situation that was unfortunately spoiled by the fumble. Coupled with his willingness to tuck it down and run when the play called for it and it ended on a higher note than it started, and it gave me some hope he’ll be better next week.

The Ugly

  • Of course, my optimism coming into this game for Ridder and expectations that we’ll see better don’t mean he had a great game. The debut was shakier than we might have hoped, but more in line with what we should have expected. He was wildly off on deep throws on the first two drives, but did settle in nicely after that to deliver a few good balls and escape pressure. Unfortunately, he also kicked off the second half with an interception on a ball to Drake London that was erased on review, and he both missed opportunities and held the ball too long in the second half. It was an uneven effort where he looked overwhelmed early, though as I noted above he did settle in and look much more comfortable and capable in the second half.

The Falcons are going to stick with him over the final four games—Marcus Mariota is on injured reserve, after all, and they need to know if he can be the guy—and they’re going to be looking for growth. There is nowhere to go but up from here after he didn’t clear 100 yards through the air, and the Falcons are going to be watching closely to see how he looks after such a quiet debut. The good news is that one start rarely determines the course of a career, and given the promise with Ridder, that last terrific throw might be a harbinger of things to come.

  • The pass protection was, despite the return of Elijah Wilkinson, the quiet background problem it has been much of the year. Marcus Mariota certainly set himself up for a fair number of sacks by holding on to the ball too long, something we saw Ridder do once today as well, but the gulf between this team’s stellar run blocking and so-so pass protection was evident again versus a Saints pass rush that got home four times and threatened on multiple other occasions. The Falcons can’t just run it back with this line exactly as constructed for that exact reason, because regardless of whether Ridder is the guy or the Falcons are looking elsewhere, they’re not quite good enough to feel comfortable.
  • London goes down as the goat in this one, assuming you’re not grinding an axe with Ridder or the defense already. His nice fourth down catch and run was undone when he allowed the ball to be punched out of his arms for a New Orleans fumble recovery, the second time on a big drive this season that he’s fought for extra yards and coughed the ball up. London is a gifted receiver who figures to be a high-end option in this league for a long time, but it’s fair to say he’s got to learn to go down or protect the ball better in those situations.
  • The Falcons defense held the Saints to 21 points and made several big stops, but on balance this was another frustrating effort even so. The Saints piled up a workmanlike 134 yards on the ground, 231 through the air—including an infuriating 80 yards on just two Taysom Hill throws—and three passing touchdowns on the day. The tenor of the entire game changed very early on, as the Saints scored 14 points in the first quarter to give them a lead they never relinquished. The points per game have been relatively low—the Falcons last allowed over 25 points back in Week 7 against the Bengals—but long drives and inopportune scores have still been the norm. A better offense would help a great deal, but the number of wide open looks and missed tackles are still a major problem for the defense.
  • It was not always readily apparent what the Falcons were thinking on offense at times. Atlanta had Feleipe Franks under center not once but twice for unspectacular plays, and the early deep shots were a surprise when I think many of us figured the team would get in a groove with the run and the short passing game early and then try to turn Ridder loose, but we saw Allgeier just once on the team’s first three drives, and they were looking downfield early. It’s hard to pick that apart too much given that Ridder simply missed some of those throws, but getting a jittery rookie comfortable and setting him up to succeed with a punishing ground game feels like it should have been an earlier priority than it was for Arthur Smith and company.
  • The injury situation was a bummer, both on the ground and on the sideline. The Falcons lost Caleb Huntley early on a day where they seemingly wanted to get him involved, and while I thought Frank Bush filled in admirably for Dean Pees as you’d expect given his experience, the unexpected loss of Dean Pees right before kickoff because a Saints player ran into him was not good. I’m not saying the Falcons win if Huntley is rolling on a quieter day for Patterson and if Pees is calling the game, but those were still significant losses.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

Who else but Allgeier, who put up well over a third of the team’s yards and close to half of their points on Sunday? It has been a strong rookie season for him, and if this game was any indication, he’ll end the year running all over defenders.

One Takeaway

One game is not enough to judge Ridder’s success or lack thereof, but after 14 games it’s fair to say we know the specific ways the Falcons are limited and how close games are going to go. They just have a lot of work do in the spring of 2023.

Next Week

A smarting, frustrated Ravens team getting Lamar Jackson back and hosting the Falcons on a bit of a short week. It’s fair to say this one could be ugly even by the recent standards of Atlanta football.

Final Word