In what was essentially a must-win game, the Atlanta Falcons put together one of their best all-around performances of the season. The running game returned to its overpowering, explosive ways. Desmond Ridder played one of his better games of the season. The team’s best players all played at a high level, none bigger than their future first-team All-Pro safety. For them to accomplish this against their fiercest rival was a massive morale booster going into a pivotal stretch of the season. Arthur Smith’s team can take a lot from their win against the Saints and use it as a launching pad to win the NFC South.
This is the ninth GIF review of the season. You can view the previous ones against the Panthers, Lions, Jaguars, Texans, Bucs, Titans, Vikings, and Cardinals to get a deeper insight into how the team fared in past games.
A Sustained Powerful, Dynamic Ground Game
This touchdown run had it all. Exceptional blocking, terrific vision, and tremendous play design. The return of Parker Hesse opened up the playbook to allow Arthur Smith and company to run heavier formations and call a greater variety of runs. Having the versatile tight end/fullback cross block to the back side here gives the offensive line more leverage at the point of attack. They used that with authority as there were a plethora of outstanding blocks. Matthew Bergeron had, by far, his best game of the season. The way he seals off the backside against Khalen Saunders is super impressive and critical in giving Bijan Robinson a lane to maneuver into the end zone.
The right side made its presence felt for all four quarters. Chris Lindstrom and Drew Dalman combine to create significant movement up front. Kaleb McGary drove Cameron Jordan away from the run, which became a constant theme during the entire game. The offensive line’s commanding performance is best represented on this touchdown run. Robinson showcases his excellent contact balance and ability to change direction without having to change speed. This touchdown set the tone for what was going to be a memorable running game performance.
The many ways Smith can incorporate multiple running backs on the same play from his terrific trio is something he is starting to get a better grasp of. Even as little as motioning Robinson to run a lead power run with Cordarrelle Patterson can prove to be effective. The Falcons clearly had a four down mindset running on third and eighth. They have adopted this strategy into their weekly game plans. The power and energy Patterson brings is an incredible asset for this offense. His capabilities as a change-of-pace running back add another dimension. There were questions about what his usage could be this season with Robinson and Tyler Allgeier in Atlanta. Utilizing him in the first half to spell Robinson and keep bring pain and pressure for opposing fronts is a brilliant way for the running game to remain productive.
It’s also great to find a role for a playmaker who is dangerous every time he touches the ball. Patterson runs through Jordan Howden and Marcus Maye to earn the first down with his violent running style. The blocking can’t go unnoticed, as Lindstrom creates the hole by pushing Bryan Breese away. Dalman and McGary do enough positionally to keep the lane clean for a well-executed run to catch the Saints off guard on third and long.
This is the formational flexibility the Falcons can utilize with their personnel. What was an empty set operating with five wide turns into a 14-yard run to the outside with all five offensive linemen winning up front and getting a solid contribution from Drake London. Robinson is at his best when he is able to accelerate outside and turn the corner. It’s become a weekly priority to get him rolling to the outside. The blocking on this play is absolutely superb, and it should be noted that McGary had his best game of the season. It was one of the most dominant run-blocking displays in his career, where he was hitting constant seal blocks and suffocating edge defenders at the line of scrimmage.
Lindstrom does an outstanding job of not allowing any penetration. The strong base he plays with is a huge difference-maker. He rarely gets knocked off balance. The blocks both players made were reminiscent of how they pounded teams into submission in most of their wins last season. The 2019 first round pairing was in top form, setting the tone for the best running game performance of the season.
The closer was hard at work on the game-sealing drive. Five of Tyler Allgeier’s ten carries came on the final drive, including three consecutive runs. This was the last of those three runs, where the Falcons ran outside zone to freshen things up for their powerhouse back. They wanted to stretch the Saints’ tiring defense out horizontally as the game progressed. That meant continuing to lean on the ferocious right side of the offensive line.
McGary makes another stellar seal block to knock Jordan off his pursuit of setting the edge. Dalman does a tremendous job of hitting his reach block and maintaining a strong base. Those are the types of blocks you want to see from your starting center. There’s nothing overly flashy about this run, yet it sent one of the bigger statements in the game on this final drive. The Falcons were going to run the ball however they wanted, and nothing was going to stop them from securing the win.
Ridder and Bijan Share Biggest Shining Moment
This is the current play of the year for the Falcons. It’s been a long struggle for Ridder and Robinson to connect in the passing game. There have been moments where Ridder has thrown behind or too high of Robinson, forcing him to make adjustments and not be able to create after the catch. There have been moments where Robinson doesn’t realize he is the hot read and allows easy completions to be wasted. This play is a long time coming. When assessing the personnel, it’s clear this pass play is designed for Robinson. Hodge, Jonnu Smith, and Chris Blair are the only other receiving options. It’s his time to make the difference.
Obtaining leverage is one of the best gifts in football. When leverage is in your hands, it can result in a transformative play. That’s exactly what happens with Robinson isolated against Demario Davis. What makes this play even more remarkable is Dalman nearly ruins it by not picking up Pete Werner. Considering Lindstrom is pulling to the left, it’s a strange gaffe on Dalman’s part to not be more urgent in closing down the open gap. Ridder doesn’t let the free rusher faze him while using his eyes brilliantly to not give away Robinson his primary read.
Davis is dialed in on the quarterback’s eyes, as Ridder is looking left and not giving any indication of where he wants to go with the ball. He always knew where he wanted to go with the ball. From his anticipation to accuracy, this is a sensational touchdown pass. Robinson gets his well-deserved explosive receiving touchdown. Arthur Smith deserves enormous praise for the play call. What a moment for the franchise.
Fourth Down Debacle
Attempting to comprehend how this play inspired any confidence to gain two yards on fourth down is something not worth trying. Motioning McGary to the left made sense with Allgeier in the backfield. They’ve been pushing the Saints around, so why not believe you can convert on fourth down by playing football football? Instead, they get creative with a zone read to the right. A right side that has just MyCole Pruitt and Keith Smith blocking, as Allgeier takes the brunt of the play. For some reason, Lindstrom is tasked with hitting a combo inside before picking up Werner at the second level, which he is unable to do. This play has so much that must go right to gain two yards.
That’s how overcomplicated it is. What Arthur Smith saw in taking a chance with this play on fourth down is mystifying. Keith Smith makes a poor block at the point of attack. Nobody fell for the play fake. It’s one of those plays where everything went wrong. As effective as the zone read has been this season, fourth down isn’t the time to get overly complex and put your team at a numerical disadvantage on the strong side of the defense.
Play action proved to be one of the successful methods to get Ridder back on track. Per Pro Football Focus, he completed eight of ten passes for 115 yards with one touchdown and one interception. This is the type of confidence you want to see from a young quarterback responding to adversity in a big game. It’s a fantastic play design challenging the opposing secondary vertically with three types of different routes, ultimately creating space for London. By having Pruitt as an extra blocker, the heavy formation helps this long-developing play materialize for Ridder to exploit the space downfield and throw this ball with touch.
Werner has range, but he can only do so much covering 20 yards downfield. Ridder makes an anticipatory throw, placing the ball with picture-perfect accuracy to his favorite wide receiver in a tight window. Now, he could have surveyed the field slightly more and recognized Scotty Miller open on a deep corner. It was clear he was dialed in on London as his primary read. The main goal for Ridder in this game was finding comfort and regaining confidence. Those are two necessities for every player. Once he fully plays with that, you can see him make those crucial post-snap adjustments and produce even greater plays.
The other biggest highlight from Ridder’s performance was how well he fared against the blitz. Dennis Allen’s wide variety of blitzes have pummeled opposing quarterbacks over the years. The pressure didn’t faze the embattled quarterback at all. According to Pro Football Focus, Ridder completed seven of ten passes for 78 yards with one touchdown and one interception. When Arthur Smith decides to spread the field with his formations, confusion and disappointment usually come with the play. The Saints bring six rushers here, coming from all angles, with Werner shadowing Robinson at the line of scrimmage. Ridder identifies he needs to get the ball out quickly. Instead of taking the easy dump off to KhaDarel Hodge or the short in-breaking route to Kyle Pitts, he throws to London on a slant-flat concept.
The intelligence Ridder shows in this play makes it such an impressive moment. It’s unlikely Hodge or Pitts gain six yards, given how tight the coverage is. Instead of throwing the ball instantly to get four or five yards, he trusts his number one weapon to win in the open field against Maye to convert on third down. The slight patience and understanding on this third down shows the growth Ridder is making when handling pressure. On the very next play, he overcame pressure once again by recognizing a mismatch and connecting with Robinson downfield for a spectacular touchdown.
Ridder’s Two Interceptions
No matter how well Ridder plays, red zone turnovers continue to derail his progression. This interception falls more on perplexing play design and miscommunication than Ridder’s processing and accuracy. Robinson, Jonnu Smith, and Van Jefferson being within the same area of eachother five yards away from the line of scrimmage isn’t a sensible play design. It also doesn’t help that Ridder and Robinson haven’t been on the same page on several occasions this season.
Some of the primary issues surrounding the passing game once again caused an unraveling at an inopportune time, this time being the end of a thriving 12-play drive. The lack of spacing is frustrating, although with more patience on Ridder’s part, he could connect with Jefferson off the shallow cross. While Ridder will certainly be culpable, the coaching staff has to do more to create clearer passing windows and maximize two former top ten pick pass catchers with massive body frames. They just so happen to be lining up together on the left side of this play.
This interception falls directly on Ridder. Despite Jefferson’s insipid attempt to get the ball at the catch point, the idea of throwing a back shoulder in this scenario should never come to mind. Jefferson is in motion, running a wheel route toward a prepared Tyrann Mathieu. If you know your personnel, it should be known to avoid throwing contested balls to Jefferson, given his struggles at making catches in traffic. Ridder gets too aggressive and forces an errant ball to a safety that has made big plays for years.
To make matters worse, he directs the pass towards Jefferson’s back shoulder when he is going vertical. From asking the receiver to adjust accelerating downfield to Mathieu tracking it the entire way, this is careless of Ridder. He had time to process and survey the field. Miller creates enough separation on the comeback to be a viable option. Ridder doesn’t wait and makes an unfathomable decision.
Jessie Bates: The game-breaker and game-saver
Baiting quarterbacks into mistakes is one of the best traits a deep-lying free safety can have. To have the coverage range, sharp instincts, and anticipation of route concepts is a tremendous combination as the defensive protector and playmaker on the back end. Bates possesses all those attributes to go along with being brilliant with his pre-snap positioning. He angles his body towards the left, which is understandable given Chris Olave’s presence inside. As soon as the ball is snapped, Bates reads Derek Carr’s eyes directed towards Rasheed Shaheed and instantly breaks right to the slant.
It’s a sensational play that showcases how intelligent and dynamic the former second-team All-Pro safety is. With how much New Orleans likes running crossers and slants to suit Carr’s preference of getting the ball out quickly, there is predictability to how they aim to move the ball. Bates recognized the play design, shifted his body to disguise his intentions, and pounced at the perfect moment to create a game-changing turnover.
Star players can make a difference at any time. Just as the Saints were putting together another long drive and dialing up another creative run design to pick up easy access yards, the Falcons were ready to counter with ferocity. The Falcons are in a modified bear front with Elliss and Carter as the edge defenders, leaving Landman as the sole defender in the middle of the field. Hill attacks the open space wisely with a lead power run, forcing the safeties to tackle him at the second level. Bates doesn’t even accelerate to the ball, with Richie Grant as the deep-lying safety ready to close in for the open-field tackle.
The confidence Bates plays with is another integral aspect of what makes him so special. He times his break and angles himself perfectly for the punch out. From how he turns the body and violently punches the ball, this is a play made by a certified playmaker who has to be accounted for at all times. Bates has already produced four interceptions and three forced fumbles this season. It’s only a matter of time for the once second-team All-Pro to receive his first-team All-Pro honors.
Bates didn’t only make game-changing plays in his stellar performance. He saved the defense in the third quarter, as the Falcons had a 14-9 lead. Misdirection runs and reverses gave the defense fits all game long. New Orleans did an excellent job of pinning Atlanta’s edge defenders like Calais Campbell, getting them off balance, and pulling their offensive linemen to make blocks on the outside. This was a well-timed, well-executed reverse, catching the entire defense off guard.
With Dee Alford sealed off and Jeff Okudah in a precarious position with two blockers charging him, Lynn Bowden Jr. has the space to turn the corner and produce a highlight-reel touchdown. Bates doesn’t allow himself to get completely caught out. He changes direction smoothly and takes the perfect angle to close down Bowden for the touchdown-saving tackle. If he doesn’t make this play, there is no telling how much the game changes as New Orleans takes the lead. It’s moments like this that prove why he is up there as the most valuable player on the team.
Linebackers Make High-Impact Run Stops
The defense looked rejuvenated and focused coming off the bye. There was more intensity to their play that was lacking in recent weeks. Kaden Elliss led the charge with one of his better games of the season. He was active against the run in closing down potential lanes and remaining positionally solid to earn those run stops. There was added motivation for the improving linebacker facing his former team.
On multiple occasions, he read the play design and outmaneuvered blockers to make the key tackle. Kentavius Street and Calais Campbell accelerated inside off the line of scrimmage to create immediate penetration. How Elliss angled himself towards the wide gap to prevent Alvin Kamara from turning the corner was terrific. A run defense is clicking when the defensive front and linebackers are working in unison to disrupt the line of scrimmage and create openings to get into the backfield. Although the Falcons struggled to handle misdirection plays at times, they collectively played well in limiting traditional runs.
Since Grady Jarrett tore his ACL, Elliss has elevated his game. It’s not that he wasn’t playing well for the first seven games. It’s more that his standout individual plays are happening more often over the last three games. He is navigating through traffic better. There is greater urgency, knowing he doesn’t have a disruptive force like Jarrett up front, one who is capable of causing havoc on any play. Elliss is trusting his instincts more and taking chances to make pivotal stops as a run defender. This could have been a massive chunk play from a gap scheme designed run.
Both Cesar Ruiz and Foster Moreau are pulling to the left to create movement up front. Elliss has other plans and bends around both incoming blocks to make a tremendous tackle. He wisely wraps both arms around Kamara, who is as dangerous as it gets when it comes to gaining yards after contact. While both starting linebackers have limitations in coverage, they continue to defend the run at a high level with impressive individual efforts.
It can’t be understated how much of an upgrade the Falcons have received at the linebacker position following multiple seasons of below-average play. For all the talent deficiencies up front, it didn’t help matters that the linebacker corps consisted of players who couldn’t handle taking on blocks or didn’t play with strong gap integrity. Similar to Elliss, Nate Landman is an incredibly savvy player who doesn’t shy away from contact and consistently positions himself to be active against the run.
He could have easily been caught in traffic by being overzealous and engaging with an offensive lineman. Instead, he remains patient and looks to read Taysom Hill’s movement. It’s a textbook play from a linebacker who knows how to coalesce with his teammates up front to stop the run. An instinctual linebacker with a high football IQ who plays with outstanding technique and fundamentals can elevate your defense. The Falcons are getting it with Landman, who played a crucial role in keeping Hill in check for a change.
One of the biggest defensive issues during the Falcons’ three-game losing streak consisted of how disorganized and out of position the defense consistently found themselves. Ryan Nielsen’s defense was incredibly compact, disciplined, and fundamentally sound during the first seven games of the season. It was among the biggest reasons for them ranking in the top ten in several metrics. A dismal loss to Tennessee began a turn for the worse, between secondary breakdowns to defensive linemen not fulfilling their gap responsibilities.
They showed encouraging improvement against the Saints, starting with not allowing a player who consistently terrorizes them every season to run all over them. Ta’Quon Graham stays composed in not over pursuing to identify the zone read. That forces Hill to turn outside where Arnold Ebiketie extends well to disengage from the block. Tre Flowers surprisingly received playing time after weeks of not seeing the field and maximized his limited opportunities. The physicality he plays with makes a difference against the run. This play set the tone in containing New Orleans’ multi-dimensional playmaker.
Okudah’s Long Afternoon
When a defense allows 444 total yards, it can’t be considered an all-around tremendous performance. Big plays were allowed at some point for such a huge yardage total, regardless of the defense kept the Saints out of the end zone. Jeff Okudah was responsible for nearly one-fourth of those yards allowed. According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed six receptions on eight targets for 103 yards, along with two penalties. It started with this 51-yard completion to Chris Olave. As much as coaches love their cornerbacks to be aggressive, Okudah’s tendency to be ultra-aggressive in man coverage can prove costly.
The immediate pull on Olave’s right shoulder was instantly penalized for illegal contact. His attempt at playing trail coverage was bound to go wrong against a player of Olave’s caliber, especially when giving him a free release off the line of scrimmage. Between the pull, the bad angle at the catch point, and the failed attempt at undercutting the pass, this was ugly from a corner who has made legitimate strides this season. Carr found success picking on Okudah, leading to his worst game as a Falcon.
Third Down Defense Reigns Supreme
Although the Saints ended up going six for 14 on third down, they struggled to convert in the second half. Nielsen’s blitzes and simulated pressures were more effective after getting telegraphed frequently early on. There weren’t any looping twists or crafty designs on this stop. Ebiketie made the biggest play of his young career by winning off the edge to force the Saints into kicking another field goal. These are the types of one-on-one clean wins you want to see from the second-year edge rusher. His quick hand usage is on full display with a swift chop down. The bend to get around the edge is excellent as well.
While the sack did come against a backup tackle in Landon Young, Ebiketie has to start somewhere to become a capable edge rushing threat. The coverage on the back end deserves to be mentioned as well. They capitalized on a favorable matchup against a decimated Saints’ receiving crops in the second half and locked them down in man coverage.
This was another crucial third down stop in the second half to keep the Saints out of the end zone. Once again, they play man coverage across the board, with DeMarcco Hellams receiving an expanded role lined up as the deep safety. Bates’ presence at the first down marker likely made Carr hesitant about throwing near his direction again. Although Juwan Johnson eventually gets some space after chipping Ebiketie, Carr is already forced to operate off schedule with Bud Dupree winning off the edge.
Similar to the painful loss to Minnesota, where he failed to bring down Joshua Dobbs after a nice outside move, he fails to bring down Carr when he is in prime position to do so. The physical toll from past injuries may affect Dupree’s ability to bend effectively when closing in off the edge. A veteran edge rusher should be able to finish sacks like this. Nevertheless, the excellent coverage and outside pressure, along with Dupree’s relentless pursuit, force Carr into an awkward check down to a well-covered Jamaal Williams. Score another win for Nielsen’s defense.