Saints vs. Falcons: Full Roster Report Card Grades for Atlanta
On Thursday night, the Saints completed a season sweep of Atlanta with a 17-13 win that officially eliminated the defending NFC South champion Falcons from the divisional race.
At 2-9, the Atlanta Falcons are now assured of their first losing season under general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith.
Thursday night's game played out much like Atlanta's first four losses of this lost 2013 season.
The Falcons were able to stay in the game and give themselves a chance to win, but at the end of the day they just couldn't make the outcome-determining plays that separate the winners from the losers in this league.
Join us as we break down how the Falcons lost their fifth-straight game and give out our game grades in our weekly full roster report card for Atlanta.
All game stats are via ESPN.com
Other than a pass that was nearly intercepted by Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins late in the second quarter, Ryan probably played the best game he's played since the Falcons beat the Bucs in Week 7.
Despite being under constant pressure, Ryan was able to complete passes to nine different receivers en route to a 30-for-39, 292-yard night through the air.
The problem for the Falcons was that they needed touchdowns if they were going to beat the Saints, and the offense just couldn't get over the top.
Some fans may criticize Ryan for sliding short of the end zone on Atlanta's second field-goal drive, but given what we know about Ryan's athletic ability, it's unlikely that he would've been able to beat the two defenders that were in his path to the goal line. That being said, Ryan did appear to slide a little early.
Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has now held Matt Ryan below 20 points in three straight games. Atlanta is 1-2 in those matchups.
Atlanta's running backs ran for 81 yards on 20 carries (Matt Ryan had 10 yards on two scrambles), and Steven Jackson looked as good as he's looked in an Atlanta uniform. He scored his second touchdown of the season at the end of Atlanta's first drive, and displayed some of the power that had Falcons fans so excited about his arrival this offseason.
Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling made timely contributions in the passing game, and Antone Smith took advantage of the playing time he earned with an 11-yard carry.
On top of all that, fullback Patrick DiMarco got a nice thump on Saints linebacker David Hawthorne on Jackson's touchdown run. Atlanta needs more physical plays like that one moving forward.
Thursday night's game was a roller coaster for undrafted free agent wide receiver Darius Johnson. After a strong first half in which he was instrumental in each of Atlanta's three scoring drives, Johnson dropped a key third-down pass midway through the third quarter.
Later on in the fourth quarter, Johnson ended what could have been a go-ahead touchdown drive for Atlanta when he didn't secure a ball he'd caught and committed the game's only turnover deep in Saints territory.
Harry Douglas remained consistent with eight catches for 68 yards, but Roddy White had little impact on the game for the third straight week.
It was easy to see how much the Falcons miss Julio Jones on Thursday night because none of Atlanta's other receivers is capable of getting deep and taking the lid off a defense when Atlanta needs a big play.
Tony Gonzalez continued to fight tough coverage in the passing game to haul in four passes for 43 yards.
Gonzalez was also called for a holding penalty late in the third quarter, but Atlanta's coaches may need to bear as much blame for that play as Gonzalez. Should Gonzalez really be put in a position where the offense is depending on him to pass block at this point in his career?
Rookie tight end Levine Toilolo left fans wanting more because if he's supposed to be capable of replacing Gonzalez next year, he probably should have been able to gain a little more YAC after his only reception of the game. Instead, he let a smaller defender bring him down in the open field short of the first-down marker.
Atlanta needs to figure out what they've got at tight end behind Gonzalez during these last five weeks.
This unit may have fared better if this grade only took run-blocking into account. Center Joe Hawley looked good for a second week in a row, and he could be making a case that he really is the long-term answer at center for Atlanta.
That's pretty much the extent of the good news for the Falcons offensive line from this game.
Left tackle Lamar Holmes seemed to get fatigued as the game went on because he regressed to the way he was playing earlier in the season in pass protection at times. The Falcons have got to get him in a serious conditioning program this offseason because he's shown enough steady improvement to merit consideration for a starting job next year provided he's in shape.
The right side of Atlanta's offensive line continued to be the most problematic, as right guard Garrett Reynolds and right tackle Jeremy Trueblood were abused by Saints defensive linemen Akiem Hicks and Cameron Jordan.
It seemed like every time the Falcons offense was primed to take control of this game, the Saints were able to get a sack to put Atlanta behind the sticks. Peter Konz came into the game for Reynolds, but he didn't look much better.
How much longer will the Falcons wait before they give some of their younger players like Ryan Schraeder, Terren Jones and Harland Gunn an opportunity on the right side of the line?
Overall, this was an average showing from what's proven to be an average group along the defensive front for Atlanta.
Peria Jerry got a sack and Corey Peters and Jonathan Babineaux made an individual play or two, but no one from Atlanta's defensive line stepped up and dominated their one-on-one matchups the way Saints defensive linemen Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks did.
The Falcons defensive ends continued to disappoint as pass-rushers. The most they were able to do was hurry Drew Brees a couple of times.
Osi Umenyiora was a nonfactor for most of the evening, as were Jonathan Massaquoi and Stansly Maponga.
The Saints won this game because their defensive line played at a higher level than Atlanta's.
Paul Worrilow set a good tone early in the game with a nice impact tackle on Saints running back Pierre Thomas in the backfield, and he made a couple of nice stops at the end of long runs by Mark Ingram.
However, Saints fullback Jed Collins did get the best of Worrilow on at least two plays, and Worrilow will need to work on getting a little lower when he takes on lead blockers with his inside shoulder in the future.
Sean Weatherspoon did a solid job in coverage and Joplo Bartu may have been the Falcons' best blitzer on Thursday night.
The Falcons have found two players in Worrilow and Bartu, but this unit really needs an intimidating presence. You haven't even been able to count on Weatherspoon to really thump somebody this year since he's been back.
The unit allowed yet another explosive play (40 yards or more) when Saints tight end Jimmy Graham beat Falcons safety William Moore on a double move and hauled in a 44-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees.
Moore was also involved in this unit's other blunder Thursday night when he knocked an end-zone interception out of Desmond Trufant's hands a couple of plays before the Saints' first touchdown. The play was a good illustration of Atlanta's 2013 campaign.
If Trufant had been able to come down with that interception, you may have been able to credit him with saving two touchdowns, because later in the game he had a nice breakup on a deep pass intended for Saints receiver Robert Meachem.
Beyond those two plays, the secondary had a decent night. Any time you hold the Saints to fewer than 20 points, you're doing something right.
Safety Thomas DeCoud had a nice rebound game after some shaky outings, and Robert McClain even held up in coverage.
Grade: C (Special Teams)
Atlanta's special teams coverage units didn't allow the Saints to get much of anything going in the return game, and that helped to make sure the Saints had to drive down a long field for their points.
Falcons punter Matt Bosher averaged 45.3 yards on three punts. Normally it'd be tough to criticize kicker Matt Bryant for missing a 52-yard field goal, but the fact that the Saints were able to "ice" in his own building after he'd made his practice attempt is troubling.
Grade: C+ (Coaching)
Kudos to Mike Smith for having his team ready to play after a short week, but they didn't play well enough to get the job done. Smith just hasn't been able to get the mojo on his team's side this season.
Whether it was William Moore breaking up Desmond Trufant's interception in the end zone, Darius Johnson's fumble or the Falcons inability to protect Matt Ryan, Atlanta showed a national television audience why this team is 2-9 on the season now.
There may be some debate over Smith's decision to attempt a 52-yard field goal with Bryant instead of going for a first down when Atlanta was facing a 4th-and-15 in Saints territory late in the fourth quarter.
Smith addressed his decision to kick a field goal in his postgame press conference (via AtlantaFalcons.com):
“Well, if we would have gotten some yardage on third down, it opens up your playbook. There is not a whole lot of great fourth and fifteen or fourth and fourteen plays. We felt a like field goal and then get an opportunity on the plus side of the two minute with three timeouts, get an opportunity to get the football back and field goal wins the game."
Based on what we saw from Atlanta's offensive line throughout the game, do you think the Falcons had a better shot at converting 4th-and-15 than they did at getting the ball back with time to drive for a field goal?
Other than that decision, Smith will be questioned as to why his offensive stayed with veteran Jeremy Trueblood at right tackle when he was clearly struggling throughout the game. Should Smith have benched Trueblood in favor of Ryan Schraeder or newly acquired Sean Locklear?