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Falcons vs. Saints recap: A winning formula

It wasn’t pretty, but a banged-up Saints squad couldn’t get the job done and the Falcons slammed the door shut en route to the NFC South lead.

New Orleans Saints v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

If the Atlanta Falcons had come out of the bye flat, showing zero resilience and all the same flaws, it would have been time to dust our hands and declare the season over. Instead, they mixed in the familiar frustrations with some brilliant moments and some genuine improvements, and that was enough to put a slumping Saints team in the deep, dark hole they belong in.

We’ll start with the good stuff, as is apropos when your favorite team beats New Orleans, which I must stress that they did by a full nine points. The Falcons put together a 228 yard game on the ground split between four players and ground the clock to a fine powder on the decisive Younghoe Koo field goal, which put the Falcons up by nine points en route to what I must again mention was a win. They also held New Orleans to five field goals, forced two turnovers, and didn’t allow a sack all day, the last item a combination of a stout offensive line performance and Desmond Ridder escaping pressure in a way he hasn’t throughout the season. It wasn’t a superlative effort, but at least defensively and on the ground, it was a damn good one against an opponent that has had Atlanta’s number all too often in recent years.

The team managed to avoid their usual pitfalls against New Orleans, of course, by largely limiting Taysom Hill’s effectiveness on the ground while keeping Cameron Jordan and company away from their quarterback. I tweeted in frustration after Ridder’s second turnover of the day that the bye week had seemingly not fixed any of this team’s issues, but the noticeable difference in how this team defended Hill and the largely strong work by the lines suggests some lessons were learned. It came at exactly the right time, because a win put the Falcons back up atop the NFC South and with some really important tiebreakers that will come into play if Atlanta can string together a few quality afternoons like they managed against the Saints.

Of course, the sour note is that they’ll likely need to be better than they were against the Saints to beat the teams left on the schedule who aren’t the Panthers or Jets, and that likely includes the Saints in New Orleans. Atlanta turned the ball over twice, one on a confusing Desmond Ridder interception and one on an awful Ridder interception, allowed far too many big plays to Chris Olave and a rotating cast of backups in between the 20s, and generally squandered opportunities to take control of the game. It was close until quite late, and that owes much to Atlanta’s worst habits and enduring mistakes.

Yet the win is a win, and it was one of the rare multi-score wins of the Arthur Smith era, against an opponent that the team absolutely had to beat and had to love triumphing against. For all their many faults and the many injuries that piled up, the Saints still have enough talent to be a problem, and they managed to cause headaches in fits and starts throughout the afternoon. In a situation where the Falcons absolutely had to prevail, they found a way to do so, and if the result wasn’t pretty it’s because this team is not going to win many or maybe any games in an elegant or particularly convincing way. The fact that they won, after a three game skid where nearly everything went wrong, is going to hearten the team and is proof of life in a season that was on the precipice of being lost entirely.

Convincing ourselves that this is a turning point for the Falcons is foolhardy at best, as we’ll need to see them make further strides and earn further wins to believe that this is and can be more than an excellent, very welcome win over the odious Saints. For one Sunday, though, Atlanta gave us something to celebrate against their biggest rival, and it was very welcome after the long slog of the last month. They did so by sticking to their strengths both on the ground and defensively, and gave themselves a blueprint to follow against other teams with shaky run defenses and lackluster offenses. Everything else is yet to come.

On to the full recap.

The Good

  • Desmond Ridder made some modest strides, and those strides are most visible when he tucks and runs. In this one, we saw Ridder escape a sack he would’ve taken in the past and run for a first down, tuck it down in situations where he might’ve held out to pass in the past, and generally look more decisive and sharper running the football. He finished the first half with quite a few yards on the ground and looked really good every time he took off scrambling, a positive sign for a player who has always had the speed to threaten defenses but has not properly utilized it in the past. That plus the beautiful pass to Bijan Robinson for a touchdown formed a small but potent highlight reel for this game, and it’s a shame that the turnovers will understandably overshadow some of the fine moments for many.
  • Robinson had another excellent game, one where a few early hiccups as a receiver could do little to diminish the strength of his effort on the ground, where he turned quality blocking into big gains repeatedly en route to 91 yards on just 16 carries. Throw in three grabs for 32 yards, especially the decisive one where he outran his defender and pulled in the touchdown catch, and it is clear that the Falcons intend to make him a focal point of their offense and that he’s more than capable of wreaking the kind of havoc this team wants to create.
  • A vintage effort from a rejuvenated-looking Cordarrelle Patterson in this one, especially late in the first half, when he was powering through contact and chaining together big carries. He finished that half with five carries for 37 yards and a lot of welcome swagger. He only got one more carry the rest of the way, but the Falcons appear to have finally found a role for him, and Patterson remains capable of delivering a handful of big-time rumbles per game.
  • The Falcons held Tyler Allgeier in reserve for the late game, when the New Orleans defense was tired, and it looked like an absolute stroke of genius as he ran over defenders, ran through defenders, and picked up huge chunks of yardage over and over again. The benefit of having such a deep backfield in Atlanta is that they can use these backs situationally, and in this one, they figured that Robinson as the featured back, Patterson as the physical change of pace back, and Allgeier as the closer would work best. The proof is in the pudding.
  • Drake London always has a chance at a catch. In the first quarter, Ridder took full advantage of his huge catch radius and drive to throw a tight window ball London had to spring and extend for, and inevitably he came down with it. Over and over again in this one, when Ridder needed the tough yardage or the key catch over the middle, he went to his top receiver, who finished the day with five grabs for 90 yards as the team’s leading receiver. An underrated option and a reliable one, London will be key to the offense’s success going forward.
  • The offensive line had one of its best days of the season, with some absolutely stellar run blocking and quality pass protection on all but a handful of occasions, when Ridder proved slippery anyways. If this team is going to round into something approaching the form we thought it might take in 2023, it’s going to be heavily reliant on this line (and players like Parker Hesse, who unsurprisingly had a nice day in his return) to create opportunities for this quarterback and this cast of playmakers. Sunday felt like a good sign in that regard.
  • Jessie Bates had the play of the game. With the Saints threatening to score, Bates read Derek Carr all the way, picked off the pass, and took it over 90 yards for a touchdown basically untouched. Given that the Saints were in danger of going up 10-0 at the time, it was a massive swing and one of the finest defensive plays of the entire season. When Bates later helped to punch out that Taysom Hill fumble, it was just another massive play for a big-time player who has delivered both solid work throughout the season and a handful of massive, momentum-swinging moments.
  • Kaden Elliss seemed amped to play his former team. In this one, he had three tackles for losses in the first half alone, nice coverage on Alvin Kamara, and the kind of energy this Atlanta defense badly needed. Aside from a coverage slip-up and missed tackle on Kamara in space, Elliss did a pretty nice job of effectively harrying and slowing New Orleans’ lead back.
  • Arnold Ebiketie was close a couple of times in the first half, but the play where he got home was huge. Facing a long third down deep in Falcons territory, Derek Carr dropped back and was dropped by Ebiketie to force a field goal try and preserve a narrow Falcons lead. A pass rusher who makes frustrating mistakes but clearly has the most upside on this roster, Ebiketie needs to be featured and needs to achieve some sort of consistency, and there were positive steps on both fronts Sunday.
  • Richie Grant is sharing time with DeMarcco Hellams—or at least he was in this one—but in a big moment late in the game, he knocked the ball out of Juwan Johnson’s hands. While his coverage misadventures have been legion, he has a nose for the ball, and he showed it when he needed to.
  • It’ll merit a re-watch, but at first glance Hellams was exactly what the team needed him to be: Solid and physical throughout. The team clearly saw something they really liked in the former Alabama safety, who has been delivering on special teams all season and now appears to be carving out a solid role for himself on defense.
  • Give this defense credit, as they bent over and over and over again without breaking. Holding New Orleans to five field goals, even with the team missing an ever-increasing number of weapons as the game went on, is an achievement given how much trouble they had against the Vikings and Cardinals, and that plus the couple of big plays (the pick-six, the fumble recovery, Ebiketie’s big third down sack) pushed Atlanta over the top on Sunday.
  • Taysom Hill is the bane of Atlanta’s existence, so his mistakes in this one were delicious for any Falcons fan. Hill had some unproductive runs in this one, and then with the Saints driving to the end zone, he had a first down run on a quarterback draw that he fumbled away for an easy recovery by Atlanta. Given how often he kills the Falcons—and he did have some big plays, even on Sunday—those unproductive plays and the turnover were beyond satisfying to behold.
  • The Falcons needed a field goal to get the nine point lead and virtually seal the victory and they had no qualms about turning to Younghoe Koo to get it. He drilled it, Blake Grupe missed his (admittedly sixth) attempt to try to give the Saints a final spark of life, and that was the game. Koo’s reliability—he has only missed one kick all year—has been so vital for this team.
  • The dumb plays were still there, as they have been throughout the season, but give the coaching staff and players alike credit for digging deep and coming up with an effort that stymied the Saints again and again when New Orleans was on offense and created troublesome matchups and big play opportunities often when they were on defense. The Saints of this season are a shadow of the Saints of seasons past, a problem (for them!) that’s likely to get worse with Derek Carr tied to the mast of a very expensive ship that’s taking on water, but beating them is never easy and the urgency and intensity the Falcons showed was quite welcome.

The Ugly

  • Ridder was supposed to come out of his rest and reset and the bye with some perspective and improvement. He did make strides as a runner in this one and zipped several nice passes in to tight windows, but the same ugly mistakes marred his day through the air once again. His throw to Bijan Robinson (more on that below) was a questionable one at best, but the throw to Van Jefferson in the third quarter was a poorly placed ball that made for an easy Saints interception. That ball to Jefferson was simply poorly placed and should never have been thrown, with Scotty Miller seemingly having a decent look and a throwaway more than welcome if that was the alternative.
  • Another game, another rough fourth down play for this offense. This time, it was more trickery, with the team stacking both tackles on the right side and putting one in motion to the left to try to sow chaos, Ridder faking the handoff of Tyler Allgeier and then keeping it with a defender right in front of the back, and then running into Saints defenders almost immediately on 4th and 2 for a dispiriting end to a nice drive. It wasn’t, in my opinion, the best call for the situation, and it was undone by poor blocking in front of Ridder in a situation where Koo could’ve easily banged home a field goal.
  • Another game, another rough red zone moment. After the Falcons popped one in with Bijan Robinson, they had an opportunity to score again before the end of the half and were driving when Ridder threw it to Robinson and wound up tossing an interception past his outstretched arm. It appeared to be a ball designed to go to Robinson, who was not quite where Ridder expected him to be, but Ridder has to either adjust his throw or not throw it at all in a situation where his receiver is not there and a defender is staring back at him, as this one was. These kinds of turnovers and decisions in the red zone in particular are the major reason Ridder’s future as a starting quarterback in Atlanta is in doubt, as he continues to kill great drivers with plays that just shouldn’t happen. It’s a familiar refrain at this point, but he has to stop doing so both for his sake and for this team to make the playoff push they so desperately desire.
  • The pass rush continues to not really be present. There were a couple of close calls for Carr with Ebiketie in addition to the sack and a handful of moments where pressure forced him to make a bad throw, but by and large there was time for the veteran quarterback to work, time that would have likely resulted in a better day for the Saints offense had his receiving options not started to drop one-by-one as the game wore on. That problem will be mitigated somewhat by the putrid quality of the offenses the Falcons are about to face, but giving any quarterback too much time is a recipe for disaster, and the Falcons won’t skirt that every week without bringing more heat. Ebiketie gets a pass here, though!
  • Chris Olave is just very, very good, but as reflected in some of the early lineup changes in the secondary, the Falcons were struggling with him and the Saints’ less impressive pass catchers at times. It ended up being a pretty empty day for Carr, thankfully, as he only threw a touchdown to the Falcons (hahaha) and didn’t engineer any drives that ended in anything more threatening than a field goal. It still doesn’t bode particularly well for Atlanta that they were scuffling a bit in coverage with some really good receivers on the docket in the weeks to come, including Garrett Wilson and Mike Evans.
  • I find it ugly that you can’t bottle the feeling you get as a fan when the Falcons beat the Saints. I’d like to have for my worst days.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

I’m giving it to Bijan Robinson, with an honorable mention to Jessie Bates. Bates’ pick-six was absolutely vital to the outcome, but Robinson scored half of Atlanta’s points through the air and on the ground and accounted for about a third of the team’s yards. We know how special Robinson can be, and seeing him put it together in a vital game was awesome.

One Takeaway

The Falcons have miles to go, but even modest improvements on defense and on offense (as we saw Sunday) will carry them pretty far against shaky opponents. Fortunately, most of their opponents the rest of the way are pretty shaky.

Next Week

The woeful Jets. The Falcons have to travel to face Tim Boyle and company, and you should read up over at Gang Green Nation to see what’s going on in New Jersey.

Final Word