Saints vs. Falcons: Takeaways from the Saints' 17-13 Victory over Atlanta
With this game sandwiched in between contests with the 6-4 San Francisco 49ers in Week 11 (a 23-20 victory for New Orleans) and the 10-1 Seattle Seahawks next week, a lackluster outing seemed to be on the horizon.
But what we got was a smashmouth football by the offense and a bend-but-don't-break style of play from the defense—which, in totality, was reminiscent of football normally seen in the Southeastern Conference in college football.
Though most expected a high-powered offensive butt-kicking—well, at least those who don't follow this column—when these two rivals compete, it's usually a nail-biter that typically goes in favor of the Saints. Ultimately, this game was no different. The Saints should be happy to leave Atlanta with momentum still on their side.
New Orleans has a ton of positives to hang their hats on. Conversely, there are a few areas where they should hang their heads.
Here are my takeaways from the Saints' gritty win over the Falcons on Thursday Night Football.
Sustaining the Balance Trend
The past two victories over the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers have unveiled some of the Saints' most complete football of the season from an offensive standpoint. The passing game has been up to normal Saints' standards, but it's the power-running game that has surfaced at just the right time.
This game was more of the same.
With quarterback Drew Brees operating from muscle memory (23-of-33 for 278 yards, with 2 TDs and 0 INTs) and running back Pierre Thomas simply muscling his way around (10 carries for 73 yards), the Saints have found the type of balance that will continue to tally notches in the win column.
With defenses having to defend all areas of the field, this has turned what was already one of the most productive offenses in the NFL into a virtual juggernaut.
Now that the Saints are operating with balance, defenses have to respect the play-action fake, which in turn produces false steps. One step in the wrong direction against a player of Brees' ilk can be the difference between a first down and a touchdown.
It also does wonders for play-calling and scheme diversity.
The Saints are just getting started with their newfound way of operating, and that's the scary part of it. The fact that the team piled up 381 yards (103 on the ground) in a lackluster performance is a nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators.
Erasing Tony Gonzalez
Falcons' tight end Tony Gonzalez has been one of the most dominant forces in professional football since he stepped foot in the NFL. His ability to make clutch plays and move the chains has been virtually unmatched. He has often put the Falcons on his broad shoulders, embarrassing defenders in the process.
It's been said that if you take Gonzalez away, the Falcons will go away. Well, that's been easier said than done—until now.
Pundits have to be impressed with the plethora of looks that Saints' defensive coordinator Rob Ryan threw at Gonzalez. The Saints kept a fresh body on him by throwing safeties Roman Harper, Kenny Vaccaro and Malcolm Jenkins on him on a rotating basis.
They also made use of bracket coverage and sent doubles his way on occasion. The results were a moderate four-catch, 43-yard performance from the future Hall of Famer. Gonzalez never seemed to get in a rhythm and didn't make nearly the type of impact we're used to seeing from him.
In addition, when you factor in that Falcons' star receiver Roddy White was in seclusion on "Lewis Island" (two catches for 24 yards)—named after Saints' cornerback Keenan Lewis' penchant for taking away the opposing team's best threat—the Saints took away both of the Falcons' biggest threats in one game.
Holding the Falcons to 13 points in this rivalry game shouldn't be glazed over.
No Greer? No Problem?
Houston, we have a problem.
When veteran corner Jabari Greer was placed on injured reserve with a torn ACL that he suffered against San Francisco, some said that second-year corner Corey White (among others) would step up and perform admirably in his stead.
I guarantee you that those people are as quiet as a church on Tuesdays after watching the game against the Falcons.
White was horrible—and that's putting it mildly. Falcons' rookie Darius Johnson looked like a future All-Pro while toasting White in every conceivable way. White displayed some of the poorest technique that has been seen in quite a while.
It was as if White was literally playing with his eyes closed. Coming into the game, Johnson had 10 catches for 104 yards. On Thursday night alone, Johnson posted six catches for 67 yards against the Saints, exposing a major hole on one of the best defenses in the league.
Does anyone have confidence that he can perform up to task against the Seattle trio of Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin and Percy Harvin?
Most agreed with my column openly pining for veteran free agent Nnamdi Asomugha, whose presence would allow White to stay at nickel corner in a reserve role while he irons out the kinks.
White will eventually be a really good player, but when you're one of the best teams in the NFL, you can't afford to leave any stone unturned.
Come on, Saints' brass, do the right thing.
Defending the Slot
The struggles of White may have only been superceded by the struggles at inside corner.
Falcons' receiver Harry Douglas was too much to handle (as predicted in this preview) for the likes of Vaccaro, corner Chris Carr and fellow safety Roman Harper. His nine-catch, 79-yard performance was eye-opening, to say the least.
It's time to adjust the scheme to fit the situation. Vaccaro is an adequate defender against tight ends, but he has very little to offer the better slot receivers in the league.
And why should he?
He's a safety that can occasionally give help at the nickel slot when called upon. Playing him in a nickel corner role exclusively is asinine. As good as Douglas is, can you imagine what Harvin will do to him?
The surplus at safety is retarding the development of one of the better talents to come into the league recently. Vaccaro should be playing in space, delivering big hits and setting the tone. He's the most physical defensive back on the team, yet can you name one bone-jarring hit from him?
Signing Asomugha would move White back to his best position, and it would allow Vaccaro to play a traditional safety role.
If a team has two or three legitimate receiving threats, the Saints will struggle. Lewis may take away the primary threat, but as we saw with even moderate players like Douglas and Johnson, that will not be enough.
A call should have been placed to Asomugha at halftime.
Pass Rush Still in Tact?
Watching the defensive line operate against the Falcons was like watching lions chase gazelles on the National Geographic channel. Falcons' quarterback Matt Ryan, the gazelle, was virtually under siege with every dropback.
While giving up a season-high five sacks, the Falcons offensive line, at times, looked like a junior varsity unit. Actually, it looked like the line from the movie Varsity Blues.
The duo of Akiem Hicks (1.5 sacks) and Cameron Jordan (2.5 sacks) are quickly becoming a force of competitive nature.
Anyone who continues to label this team as a 3-4-based outfit is very wrong. Playing in an even-front alignment allows for Hicks to one-gap penetrate (get up field) and play the run on his way to the passer.
It also allows Jordan to operate on the edge to use his vast-array of pass-rushing moves. Playing these guys in a 3-4 would be of hindrance to the rush. In a 3-4, Jordan would playing more on the interior and would be charged with stopping the run, first and foremost.
It would also force outside linebacker Junior Galette to defend slot receivers, something that nobody in their right mind would be keen on.
Saints' defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is doing a great job of tailoring the scheme to his personnel rather than forcing square pegs in round holes. The rapid development of Jordan and Hicks is evidence of that—much to chagrin of Matt "The Gazelle" Ryan.
Going Beast Mode
Sometimes, teams need signature moments of physicality to send non-verbal messages to the rest of the league. The Saints are known as a finesse team, but they are beginning to erase that label with said moments.
Thomas' ferocious stiff-arm to Falcons' cornerback Desmond Trufant looked like that one-hitter quitter that Debo gave to Red in the movie Friday. Trufant had no idea what hit him. But luckily, he has insurance and was able to get Thomas' license plate number.
Zing! I'll be here all day, ladies and gentlemen. Well, at least until the end of this slide.
If that wasn't a message to any team thinking the Saints are soft, the subsequent catch-and-run by tight end Jimmy Graham—who delivered like three "stiffies" of his own—definitely delivered the blows that will reverberate throughout the league.
Instead of running out of bounds, Graham seemingly punched his way down the field for another 15 yards—looking like a bad Steven Seagal movie.
Is there anything more entertaining than a Saints' game these days?
Balance, physicality and efficient-execution; does it get any better than that?
But please bring in Nnamdi...