It took a Herculean defensive effort and a clutch fourth quarter from the offense, but the Atlanta Falcons began their second half with a win that was nothing short of essential.
Atlanta beat New Orleans 24-15 on Sunday afternoon, moving into first place in the NFC South and knocking their hated rivals out of the perch along the way. There were unquestionably moments where this outcome looked headed in a different direction. A drop by Bijan Robinson on the first offensive play could have portended a bad day ahead, but give credit to the Falcons for scratching and clawing their way to this win.
There will be plenty of time to dissect every little bit of this one—and to hold it over the heads of those gold-and-white goobers a few states over—but until then, I hope these takeaways will be enough.
The two sides of Desmond Ridder remain on display
There were moments during the first half on Sunday where Ridder looked calm, in control, and like the game was slowing down around him. That was evident in the moments where he scrambled for big yardage while the defense left him unaccounted for. It was evident in his fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Bijan Robinson—a back-foot flick with pressure in his face that landed perfectly in the rookie’s arms for a 29-yard score.
That was the good side of Ridder, and why the Falcons have turned back to him. There were also bad moments.
An interception at the end of the first half stymied a lot of the momentum that was building for the Falcons. A touchdown on that drive would have been a real blow to the Saints, and may have forced a change to their game plan.
Late in the third quarter, Ridder made another questionable decision when he threw a back-shoulder pass to Van Jefferson, who didn’t appear ready for one. However, Saints safety Tyrann Mathieu was and picked Ridder off for the second time. The score was 14-12 at that point in the game, and although the Saints didn’t score, it was a major mistake.
Ridder had some moments of excellence and a handful of really poor ones. That’s pretty much what we saw in the weeks leading up to his benching. The turnovers remain frustrating, but the reasons for optimism are clearly visible as well.
Jessie Bates breathed life into the Falcons
Sunday’s all-important game threatened to get away from Atlanta early. After moving into the Falcons’ red zone for the second consecutive possession, the Saints' offense seemed poised to reach the end zone.
Jessie Bates had other ideas.
As he’s done a handful of times this season, Bates came through with a momentum-swinging play at just the right time. He expertly read the Saint’s slant design and jumped Derek Carr’s pass to Rashid Shaheed with perfect timing. Once he secured the pick, Bates had nothing but daylight ahead of him and outran the Saints for a 92-yard touchdown.
That one play prevented a potential 10-0 lead for New Orleans and instead gave the Falcons a 7-3 edge. Atlanta’s defense wants to create more turnovers during this final stretch. The first one came at the best possible time. It was Bates’s fourth interception this season, matching the career-high he set last year.
He had another massive play at the end of the third quarter. As they were seemingly all afternoon, the Saints were knocking at the door of the end zone and in position to take the lead. Taysom Hill was busy all afternoon, and his battering-ram style was on display. But as he churned forward for some extra yardage, Bates came in with a pinpoint strike on the ball to knock it loose. The turnover prevented any New Orleans’ points and kept the Falcons ahead 14-12.
I'm 'bout to punch the ball out— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) November 26, 2023
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Atlanta’s red-zone defense was flawless
Chris Olave’s 50-yard reception flipped the field, but the Saints couldn’t capitalize on the big play in the red zone. On third-and-goal Saints quarterback Derek Carr and rookie receiver A.T. Perry were not on the same page at all. Carr caught the shotgun snap and without hesitation threw what looked to be a jump ball to the back right corner of the end zone. However, Perry, the No. 1 receiver to the right side, didn’t move off the line of scrimmage. It’s not clear what exactly he was doing, but it resulted in a head-scratching throwaway.
For the Falcons, it was a big break after the early catch by Olave. It would also prove to be a sign of things to come for Atlanta’s defense, which was excellent in the red zone on Sunday.
Time and again the Saints found their way into scoring territory. Time and again the Falcons found their way out of a jam. Whether it was Jessie Bates making some incredible individual plays, a swarming effort by the secondary or a timely sack, the defense played like this was a must-win game in the area of the field that mattered most.
New Orleans finished the game 0-of-5 in the red zone, coming away with field goals in each trip. We’ve seen some really nice efforts from Atlanta’s defense this season, but this one belongs right up there at the time.
Has DeMarco Hellams supplanted Richie Grant?
The Falcons have utilized a three-safety look for much of this season, and Hellams has had a marginal role for the defense in those looks, but he may have a much bigger one moving forward. Hellams was on the field quite often during Sunday’s division game, most notably in the team’s red-zone packages. It may be too soon to say that Hellams has taken over Grant’s spot as the starting safety, but this was a notable development coming out of the bye week.
Grant struggled in the weeks leading into the bye, giving up explosive plays and missing open-field tackles. Meanwhile, Hellams, a seventh-round pick out of Alabama, has been steady if not flashy during his limited action. Down the stretch in Sunday’s game, Grant saw a bit more playing time, so this could be a fluid situation moving forward.
“We’ve got a lot of belief in Richie,” Arthur Smith said this week. “What happens is you give up a play at a critical time, it’s easy to get down. But there are lot of other things … got a lot of confidence in him.”
Kudos to the offensive line
This is a group that has not performed up to the high expectations set for it ahead of the season, but Sunday was a different story. New Orleans’ defensive front has the size and physicality to overwhelm most offensive lines, but the Falcons were the aggressors in this one. They paved the way on the ground, allowing the offense to gain nearly 6 yards a carry, and they kept Ridder clean. Most importantly, when the offense needed to secure the win in the fourth quarter, the offensive line took it to the Saints as the Falcons marched their way down the field. Just a great showing from the offensive line.