Before six minutes had come off the clock, the Falcons had a 10-point lead. Quarterback Matt Ryan threw for a career-high 411 yards and tight end Tony Gonzalez not only blew past the 1,200-catch mark for his career—a feat only Jerry Rice had done prior—but he caught his 100th-career touchdown pass.
Everything was going Atlanta’s way until the defense forgot how to tackle, until the defense learned there was no way to cover Saints tight end Jimmy Graham and until the offense found that Atlanta’s rushing attack was more of a weak slap than a hard-hitting weapon.
The Falcons blew a number of tackles and miscalculated frequently on angles of tackle, allowing Chris Ivory to carve up the defense for 67 first-half rushing yards and Mark Ingram to notch 40. New Orleans averaged 80 yards per game entering Week 10 but entered the half with 116 because the defensive line was porous and the second and third wave of defenders forgot grade-school fundamental tackling.
Atlanta failed to come up with a method of stopping Graham, who caught two touchdown passes in the first half and finished the game with seven catches and 146 receiving yards.
It was impossible to stop Graham with a safety, a linebacker or even a cornerback—the Falcons tried them all. So Drew Brees kept attacking with his tight end, and Graham racked up the yardage.
The biggest deficiency of the game, though, was Atlanta’s inability to do anything on the ground. Ryan threw for 411 yards Sunday not just because he’s a talented, MVP-level passer, but because the Falcons averaged 2.75 yards per carry.
Jacquizz Rodgers was Atlanta’s leading rusher with 29 yards on three carries. Michael Turner floundered with 15 yards on 13 carries.
Turner was met too often in the backfield to make any headway. When he wasn’t dodging tacklers before the line of scrimmage, he was dancing and jumping left and right instead of driving forward. One of the reasons for that is Turner has lost a step. But the real reason is the Falcons miss having a fullback that can lead for Turner and open holes.
The Falcons were grossly deficient on third down in the red zone. On five attempts, Atlanta converted twice, but twice it lost yardage with Turner runs. For a team that spent its first two draft picks getting bigger on the offensive line so third-and-short situations could be won with power, this is a huge step in the wrong direction.
Atlanta has been living on the edge for much of the season. Fourth-quarter and last-minute drives against the Carolina Panthers, the Washington Redskins and the Oakland Raiders looked good on paper but exposed this team as one that can’t put enough points on the board early before its defense hands the game back.
The Saints hammered home this flaw Sunday and now Atlanta has to find a way to score more points or shore up a defense that was outplayed by, statistically, the worst defense in the NFL.